It has been said that experience is the best teacher. It can also be the harshest. As a public information officer (PIO) for the Chattanooga Fire Department, I’ve worked hard to get the best training I can get to do my job. Yet, many of the things I’ve learned over the years did not come from a classroom or a book, but rather from the school of hard knocks.
If you’re new to the PIO business, the following information may be of some help to you. If you’re like me and have been around the block a few times, you might still benefit from a refresher on the basics. There are many ways to be an effective PIO. The information below summarizes what I’ve learned over the years and what’s worked for me.
Establishing a Rapport with the Media
Whether you’re a part-time or full-time PIO, it’s a good idea to get to know your local news media. If you’ve been interviewed by a network personality like the Today Show’s Matt Lauer, good for you, but you’re not going to be dealing with him on a regular basis. In general, you will be dealing with local reporters, photographers, assignment editors, producers and news directors. For the sake of brevity, I will from this point on refer to all of them as “reporters.”
To do your job effectively, it’s helpful to know reporters by name. This could involve personally visiting the newsrooms and introducing yourself, or hosting an informal get-together at your place. Introduce them to your fire chief and other chief officers and give them a short tour. The whole idea is to get acquainted, because the better you know each other on the front end, the better you can deal with them when it’s “show time.”
Working with the Media on Fire/Rescue Scenes
How you and your colleagues deal with reporters on fire/rescue scenes is critical. Your firefighters will most likely be busy. Your job is to keep reporters out of the way, and to facilitate their coverage. In Chattanooga, TN, we have a great working relationship with our police department, but occasionally the patrol officers will keep reporters a little too far away from the action. When that occurs, I will physically escort the reporters to a safe spot where they can see the firefighters at work. It does not help you or your department to hide your efforts. Your firefighters are the proverbial good guys. Show them off whenever you can.
Occasionally, you will have reporters get a little too close to the action. They’re just trying to get a good shot, but safety isn’t always their primary concern. In that event, it’s okay to be polite but firm in directing them back to a safe area. On a large fire scene, you cannot guard the entire site. Scene tape works wonders for giving the media visible guidelines for boundaries and in my experience, few reporters feel comfortable crossing it. Getting back to my earlier point, if you make the effort to give them a good vantage point, they are less likely to wander into an unsafe area. If the reporters are already in place before you arrive, try to go to them first or at least make eye contact with them so they know that you know they are there. This lets them know that they can expect to receive some information from you fairly soon.
Getting the Facts
Once the reporters are in a good, safe spot, you can leave them temporarily to get the information you’ll need. I get most of my information from the incident commander, but I’ll also get useful information from the first company to arrive on the scene, fire investigators and even the fire victims.
It’s worth noting here that getting the facts is a truly crucial part of the PIO’s job. Accuracy is paramount. It takes a long time to build up credibility as a truthful, reliable spokesperson for a fire department. However, one serious mistake can undo all that credibility in the blink of an eye. Check and double-check your facts — especially names — and use spell-check often.