Public Information Officers

Issue 9 and Volume 10.

Recently, Tom Olshanski of the United States Fire Administration has convened virtual meetings to discuss how public information officers (PIOs) can be more actively involved in community risk reduction (CRR). And in truth, the group he has assembled has been discussing a wider role for these types of folks and morphing their responsibilities into a larger role–external affairs.

I was once a public information and education officer for a small fire department in Oregon. My role changed over time in recognition of the natural fact that when you are releasing information, especially to the media, there is inevitable mission creep that leads you to be part of the greater mission of the fire service.

You become a spokesperson for everything the fire department is involved with–good and bad. So if your fire department is actively involved in CRR, then what’s your role?

Not being a subject matter expert myself, I reached out to my friend Michael McLeieer of the Olivet (MI) Fire Department for help. The basic function of a PIO is to share relevant information. If the public is just looking for the “what happened” story of the latest fire, auto, haz-mat, or medical incident, there is little time for anything other than the facts.

However, this is a golden opportunity to turn the media moment into something positive. For example, getting them to discuss what happened, and how to prevent similar events, is the first step to turn that relationship into a CRR effort; but that doesn’t just happen on its own.

Anyone involved in this job first needs to develop and maintain a relationship with the media. Approaching the news director, assignment desk editors, reporters, and community affairs directors can get them to look at you as more than a media mouthpiece. My friends who were good at this kind of thing always made a point of sharing that they would help the media find whatever information they needed in a timely fashion. That helps them do their job. That in turn hopefully leads toward the media helping you do yours.

You may submit ideas for them to consider for stories in slow news periods, including seasonal safety tips, special events, recent trends, and more that could help foster a close working relationship. Michael tells me that the months of November, February, May, and July are often “sweeps” or ratings periods, and the media may be looking for something distinctive during those times.

Once you’ve developed a working relationship, you need to decide how to use it to help your CRR efforts. That means your ultimate goal is to get information out that will portray the fire department in a positive light and provide valuable safety information to the public and local decision makers; the media can help you do that.

So use the opportunity to turn each bad story into a positive safety message. I always had some trepidation calling out people’s mistakes, but I was willing to take ownership that bad things can and do happen to good people and our interest is in helping others prevent similar situations. We’re not blaming but rather pointing out what may prevent other such disasters.

And, use any opportunity you have to get the media interested in the larger safety outreach efforts of your department. Keep in mind they may need different things depending on the media, and plan your events or stories to have the right mix of visual, audio, or background material depending on what they need.

Once you start down this road, your public information efforts become part of a larger goal to improve public safety. It’s not just about making the department look good; it’s about using this venue to increase risk reduction outreach efforts.

That may eventually evolve into the concept Olshanski’s group has been discussing. If the person serving as PIO is also providing other information, then the media–and the public–can reasonably expect him to know more about the fire department operations. Focusing on external affairs opens a path of action that is another story entirely because it is so complex. But the simple version begins with the supposition that the PIO is the visible point person for the fire department. Once that is known, the media, and even the general public, will start looking to him for answers to more detailed questions.

Developing community partnerships is such an important part of CRR efforts. Collaborating with the media is basic and logical, and anyone viewed as a spokesperson for the fire department can help foster those relationships.

For more information, contact Michael McLeieer at [email protected] and Tom Olshanski at [email protected]. The basic principles seem simple, but I’ve found getting advice from the professionals is always a good idea.