PIO 101: The Basics of Media Relations for the Fire Service

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...

Every PIO has his or her own style on how to present the facts to the media. Since I have a journalism background, I utilize part of what I’ve learned from that profession to help me as a PIO. For example, I use attribution. In my news releases, I tell the media where I got my facts. In a typical news release, I might include something like this: “Battalion Chief Joe Firefighter said the fire caused considerable damage to the house, with the dollar loss estimated at $100,000.”

This technique accomplishes a couple of things. First, you’re showing the public that there are many more people involved in the fire department than just you and the fire chief. To use a sports metaphor, you’re showing everyone that you’ve got a “deep bench” with lots of professionals who know what they’re doing. Secondly, most firefighters — though they won’t admit it — like to see their names in print. It may be old hat for seasoned officers, but most firefighters enjoy getting a little recognition for their efforts.

What Do Reporters Want to Know?

Really, it’s fairly simple. Depending on the nature of the incident, they want answers to six basic questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? Whose house is this? What happened? What time? What’s the address? And in the Why/How category, what started the fire? Get facts to answer those basic questions and you’re well on your way to facilitating media coverage and solidifying your rapport with reporters.

Depending on the incident, there may be other facts you will need to include. Were there any injuries or fatalities? Was there a working smoke alarm in the house? Did a neighbor try to go in and carry a victim out? If so, that’s something you need to include. You don’t want to say the same thing every time, so mix it up and use relevant facts. There’s no point in mentioning a missing smoke alarm if the house was empty.

When Do They Want to Know It?

The short answer to that question is, ASAP. As PIO, you operate on a different timeline from your co-workers and occasionally it can be a little demanding. If you’ve been on a big fire overnight, you can’t just leave the scene and go home to rest with the intention of sending out a release the next day. The news business does not operate that way. If you wait until the next day to send out a news release, then it’s not NEW, is it? The media probably knows about the fire and they will want to report on what happened in their morning newscasts. That’s where you come in. You need to remain on the job to provide as much information as you can. After you’ve done that, then you can take a break.

No, you don’t work for the media, but you should be aware of media deadlines and try to accommodate them when possible. Do this consistently and you will become a “go to” PIO for the media. How quickly you should respond to media requests depends on what they want. For incidents like fires, you should be able to offer up some facts within a few minutes or hours. Obviously, other facts, such as the cause of the fire, may take more time. It is perfectly acceptable to respond to a reporter’s question with “I don’t know.” The next words from a good PIO though, will be “I’ll find out and get back to you as soon as I can.”

Not every reporter request requires a quick response. If a reporter wants to do a story on code inspections for example and requests inspection reports for the past year, you can reasonably tell the reporter that gathering that kind of information will take more time, possibly several days or longer.

PIOs must be able to provide reliable information in a timely manner. If you’re not willing to work with that kind of mindset, then perhaps the PIO job is not for you. Being a PIO can be fun and rewarding, but like any other profession, it takes some training and effort to do it right.

Next Time: Tips for News Releases and Media Interviews

BRUCE GARNER is the public information director for the Chattanooga Fire Department, a Class 2 ISO fire department in southeast Tennessee. He has a B.A. in English from Lee College (now Lee University) and was a former radio/TV reporter before switching to the other side of the microphone. After serving 10 years as a PIO with Hamilton County Emergency Services, he accepted his current position with the Chattanooga Fire Department, where he has been for the past 11 years. Utilizing his experience with emergency management, he has also served as chairman of the Hamilton County Local Emergency Planning Committee for six years, and is a member of the National Information Officers Association and Public Relations Society of America. You can reach him by e-mail at garner_b@chattanooga.gov.