When it comes to releasing public information, timing is everything and sooner always is better.
Good public-information programs develop and maintain processes that ensure timely, accurate and collegial exchanges with the community, including the media. Such dialogue should encompass departmental activities, programs and responses, with attention to the particular needs of the community. Internal and external relationships are key for anyone involved in public affairs.
For the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department (as well as other fire and EMS departments in the metro area), getting media coverage can be easy, but using that coverage to suit the agency's purposes and truly inform and educate the public is more complicated. Challenges ensue when typical media coverage of fires and other response incidents doesn't always hit the right mark in terms of communicating key messages to the community.
That being said, relations with the news media should be cordial, and those of us involved in emergency-services public-information activities should cooperate and engage fully with representatives of the news media. This isn't always easy. Many suburban and rural fire and EMS departments are located in communities that depend largely on metropolitan news agencies or network news, and local-interest stories may not necessarily be newsworthy for the entire region from their point of view.
For the media, fires make for exciting news — there is action, drama, good visuals and, sometimes, controversy. This is why the media seems willing to cover those big fires and rescues. Safety messages, if any, often are buried in coverage, making it vital for fire and EMS departments to be proactive in promoting wellness, prevention and safety for those we serve.
The key strategy in dealing with the media is knowing how to communicate relevant topics effectively and efficiently. This requires using various forms of communication and techniques. Good public-information officers understand that they need to get information out quickly. With all of the cell phones, smartphones and social media tools like Twitter, it is usually only minutes before any information of substance will get widely distributed. More often than not, fire-department credibility depends on getting the most accurate information to the public first. And the departments that regularly use and work with the media usually are the ones that have the best public perception.
A news cycle today occurs practically every minute. The demand for comments (official and unofficial) to the media is growing all the time. Between the Internet and 24-hour news channels — as well as professional reporters and citizen journalists (i.e., bloggers) — chiefs, firefighters, paramedics and PIOs need to become increasingly media-savvy and media-social. This way we meet the demands of the wide variety of stakeholders who have come to expect immediate and direct information.
In 2007, I served on the panel of outside experts convened by the city of Charleston, S.C., to examine the fire department's handling of the Sofa Super Store Fire. Mayor Joe Riley wanted the Charleston Post Incident Assessment and Review Task Force's work to include, among other priorities, an "intense diagnostic analysis" of the fire department and its practices and procedures.
The task-force members had many years of experience with various fire-service organizations from across the nation; we brought with us different areas of expertise and thus varying levels of involvement with the media. At the time, Brian Crawford and I had the best familiarity with media processes, both having served as public-information officers. It was an emotionally charged environment in Charleston that was being scrutinized by the news media, bloggers and the community. There was worldwide interest and intense pressure for information. The Charleston fire chief at the time had been filling the role of spokesperson and struggled to maintain both his well-being and the department's reputation.
Moving with amazing speed — less than a week — the six-person panel came out with a list of initial recommendations. "I think there are areas that are significant firefighter safety issues that, to us, need to be implemented as soon as possible," task-force leader J. Gordon Routely said at the time. The initial recommendations included the creation of a public-information officer position.
The newly created PIO has played a key role in keeping the department, the Charleston community and the fire service informed about the rebuilding process, which in turn has improved the department's reputation.
Task-force members knew how important a dedicated PIO could have been in the aftermath of the furniture-store fire, but Charleston successes since creating such a position show the critical role that communication can play in your future and the health and welfare of the organization you lead. Today, your reputation and the reputation of your department can be questioned or attacked by anyone, anywhere, at any time. Who you are as a person and as a fire chief will be measured, and there is little room to hide — and hopefully little reason to do so. The men and women of your organization, elected officials and the community all want to see, know and respect the real you. Your path determines your organization's path.
Getting the Message Out
Ask any PIO who has handled a major incident or event, or even a large-scale training exercise, to identify what was the biggest challenge he faced, and he likely will say it was command approval of information to be released.
"Prior approval for the authority to provide timely information should already be in place from fire chiefs to the PIO," said Mark Brady, a veteran public-information officer in Prince George's County, Md. "If no clear preconceived process is identified, a problem may start to arise as an incident escalates and additional authorities — such as politicians, command officers and community leaders — become involved in the decision-making process."
Today's PIO not only needs to be fast, but needs to provide a fairly constant flow of information about the particular activity or incident. In Washington, D.C., we use Twitter as a tool to provide timely incident-centric information. This has proved to be an effective social-media strategy. Because the news media has changed and all media outlets have their own Web sites and/or associated social-media outlets providing continuous updates, Twitter works extremely well for us. Plus, elected officials, other local agency heads, community leaders and the interested public have come to expect an almost continuous flow of up-to-date information. If they don't get it from the PIO, they will get it from someone or somewhere else — as will the media.
Given this need for speed and frequent updates, the issue of command approval becomes acute. It simply doesn't work anymore for your incident commander or unified commander to wait on the release of information for an hour — or even 10 minutes — while people outside of the response community are continuing to communicate both accurate and inaccurate information. Ultimately the solution is to make it extremely easy for command to approve the information for release as soon as it is verified, and to make it a very simple, streamlined process for the designated PIO to publish it and distribute it to multiple audiences in multiple forms. Los Angeles Fire Department PIO Brian Humphrey may have summed it up best: "We can no longer afford to work at the speed of government."
The PIO 10 Commandments
Over the years, I have adapted my own 10 commandments of a good PIO based on George Merlis's How to Make the Most of Every Media Appearance. We must acknowledge that methods for communicating and disseminating information will continue to change in this era of ever-expanding technology. As long as these 10 values are respected, the public can be assured of the best, most accurate and most timely information.
- Thou shalt be prepared.
- Thou shalt know to whom thou art speaking
- Thou shalt be quoteworthy.
- Thou shalt practice, practice, practice.
- Thou shalt not lie, evade, nor cop an attitude.
- Thou shalt be respectful and polite to all audiences.
- Thou shalt keep the needs of the public in highest regard.
- Thou shalt recognize the frontline heroes.
- Thou shalt maximize opportunities to share safety and health messages.
- Thou shalt remember that information is empowering (for the giver and receiver).
Pete Piringer is the chief spokesperson and director of public information for the District of Columbia Fire & Emergency Medical Services Department. He has several decades of public-safety experience and has served as a public-information officer for several large departments in the Washington, D.C., area, including the Montgomery County (Md.) Fire and Rescue Service, Prince George's County (Md.) Fire/EMS and the Maryland State Police. Piringer also is president of the College Park (Md.) Volunteer Fire Department, where he has been a member for over 40 years.
- Under Watchful Eyes: An effective public information office
- Prime Exposure: Using news media as an ally during a public health crisis
- On-Air Anxieties: Speaking to the media
- Talk is Cheap: Media relations training
- No News is Dad News: Planning a disaster communication strategy
- Managed Media: Media covers fires