Every department, regardless of size and type (volunteer, combination or professional) should have a designated public information officer.
Every department, regardless of size and type (volunteer, combination or professional) should have a designated public information officer. Over the last few years, by watching the news you've seen that incidents are occurring in every part of the country from highly populated areas to remote swamplands or deserts. News can happen anywhere, and your department could be next. And when news happens, the media is not far behind.
A designated public information officer (PIO) is someone that is trained to handle information requests. Not everyone is up to the task. And another misconception is all a PIO has to do is look good in front of a camera. Actually doing interviews takes up little time. Gathering the right information, putting all the facts together, preparing releases, disseminating the information and follow up is what takes the most time and is the MOST important function of the PIO. So what does it take to be a PIO?
QUALIFICATIONS OF A P.I.O.
Needless to say the most important qualification of a PIO it should be done by someone who wants to do it. It should not be an assignment, but rather a position that requests interested individuals. The ones that really want to be a P.I.O. will be the ones who request the position. Some departments make the mistake of making it part of the promotion process or as an additional duty to another assignment they have such as Training Officer or some other function. Many times this leads to resentment and frustration. Usually a person who wants to be the P.I.O. has either had some journalism or media training or experience. The most important quality is they are ?interested.?
It should be a member of the department. The P.I.O. is the official spokesperson for the department. They are speaking on behalf of every member. It should be someone who is part of the team. When a difficult incident occurs, that person will know how the others in the department will feel. It would be difficult for someone who is not a member of the department to know how members felt after they have been on a call where maybe a fire fatality has occurred or personnel successfully delivered a baby on a medical response.
It should be someone who is familiar with the policies and procedures of the department. Many times the P.I.O. will have to answer questions about policies and procedures used by the department. Not only from the media, but the public as well. The P.I.O. will almost have to be a walking encyclopedia on department polices and procedures, which means they will constantly have to study and review procedures several times a year.
It should be someone with a good working knowledge of fire science, fire safety and fire prevention. The P.I.O. is also a teacher and at times they maybe explaining how a fire occurs or fire safety tips to thousands, possibly millions of people at a time. This is extremely important during interviews, especially if they are live. Again this means the P.I.O. will have to do a lot of studying. They need to be prepared to answer an ?off the cuff? question during an interview without the luxury of looking up the data. (This will be covered more in detail in one of my upcoming articles: ?How to Handle the Interview.?)
Should be someone who is proud of the fire service and is a good example. The P.I.O. is also a role model for the department. They should be one of the finest examples of the department. This doesn?t mean they have to be the finest firefighter or inspector, but they should prepared, have a neat appearance and show they are proud to be part of the fire service.
Should be someone who is willing to work LONG hours under STRESSFUL conditions. On some days as P.I.O. I have worked for 18 hours without a break, caught a few hours sleep and was back at the incident. You could be on the scene for several days or weeks in some cases. The larger the incident, the more of the media that will be attracted which means more requests for information. The P.I.O. may find themselves explaining the same facts over and over again, which sometimes can be irritating. Sometimes politics can also play into the situation, which also adds to the stress factor.
Should be someone who can ?take the heat.? And I don?t mean the heat from the fire. It should be someone ?who can take a licking and keep on ticking.? After working several positions over the past 30 years from firefighter to fire chief, being a PIO has been the most difficult.
Working with the media is extremely stressful, especially if you are working a large or difficult incident. After several hours of being asked the same questions over and over again, it takes its toll. The PIO should be aware of this fact and keep their emotions and demeanor under control.
Should be someone who is available on a regular basis. The MOST important quality of a P.I.O. The P.I.O. should consider themselves available 24 hours a day / 7 days a week / 365 days a year. PIOs like everyone else need time off and don?t work everyday. But one of the most important qualities of a successful PIO is being available when the media needs information. This means you may find yourself talking to a reporter after hours from home to explain how a hydrant works or maybe you do an interview over the phone at 3:00AM for a reporter in Tokyo where it is the afternoon. Many times the PIO may have to get up in the middle of the night to respond to a large fire to assist the media in getting the story and seeing first hand what really happened. Fires, emergencies and newsworthy events don?t always happen during regular business hours and the potential PIO should consider this.
When I asked several members of the media what was one of the most important qualities of a PIO was, the one that always came up first was ?having someone that is available.? Even if you don?t return their call immediately or are out for the evening, shopping, recreation, whatever?if you make the effort to do a follow up with information or see if they have any questions, they will appreciate it.
Should be someone who has a talent for writing, being able to explain things and is photogenic. The PIO will be responsible for putting together media releases and ensuring the information is accurate. They may have to work on the department?s website or help prepare photographs for a newspaper story. And once again, the PIO is a teacher, both to the media and the general public. The PIO must have good teaching skills, being able to explain complicated matters in a simple way.
Should NOT be someone who is shy. The media wants someone that is willing to talk and keep the conversation interesting.
Should NOT be an opinionated person, or one who speculates. PIOs only state the facts. PIOs are the spokesperson for the department. Only the facts should be stated. Opinions and speculations will only get the PIO in trouble. Lawyers are just waiting for a comment, which maybe used in court for a lawsuit. Only use facts that will appear on the actual fire incident report.
Should be a ?company person.? The PIO is totally dedicated to the department. You want the very best being the representative of the entire department.
Should be someone who is not offended easily. After working an incident for several hours, sometimes with little sleep and food, tempers can run short. And that is when things are said that should have not been said. As difficult as it may be, always show your best and keep you temper under control. This is what separates a good PIO from a pro.
It should be someone who ?puts brain in gear before engaging mouth.? Should be someone who is quick thinker. These two go together. The PIO is not quick to answer, but thinks before making a reply. Once a statement is made you cannot retract it. Be decisive in your answers; think each one out before replying. And if you are not sure on your answer, tell them that you will look into it and will get back to them. It is better not to give information that you are unsure of than to release it and then try to explain later why it is inaccurate.
Most important-It should be someone who WANTS and LIKES the job. Why did you become a firefighter in the first place? Because you WANTED to, and you LIKED being a firefighter. The same applies to the Public Information Officer. Usually the best person for the job will be the one who wants to do it and one who likes it and looks forward to doing it.
The only known professional qualifications standard for Fire-Public Information Officer are found in the National Fire Protection Association Pamphlet 1035. Chapter five lists the general requirements, requisite knowledge and skills. Every Fire-PIO should strive to achieve these requirements.
To have a successful public information and media relations program in your department begins with having the right person to do the job. Make sure you consider the recommendations listed above when selecting the PIO to represent your department.
One of the most important functions of a Public Information Officer is to give interviews. But ALL personnel of the department should be aware of how to give interviews. Sometimes the media will want to interview the person that performed the actual rescue or want to ask what it is really like to be a firefighter. Although PIOs are usually the primary contact and conduct the most interviews, it is to the advantage of the department to use other personnel if they are available for special occasions. What now becomes the PIOs most important function is to pick the right person to do that interview and assist them to ensure the interview is done correctly.
TYPES OF INTERVIEWS
• Video - Taped
• Video - Live
• Audio - Taped
• Audio - Live
• Telephone Interviews
• In Person - Face to Face
• Press Conference
• E-Mail - Internet
• Written Correspondence
Live interviews are probably the most difficult; there is no room for error. You have less time to prepare yourself and research your subject. Taped interviews can be taped over and over again until it is done right, so if you sneeze during your interview, you can fix it. With a live interview you can't.
Regardless of the type of interview, you should always ASSUME you are being taped. Even when a reporter does a face-to-face interview writing their notes in a notebook, you should still be under the assumption that some type of recording device is being used to record the conversation. This is almost always true during a telephone interview.
Most of the time the media will ask in advance if they can conduct an interview. If you are called on the telephone, once again assume your conversation is being recorded.
When they call to set up the interview, you should ask questions such as:
• What specific information do you need?
• How long will the interview take in time?
• Where do you want to do the interview?
• Ask them who will be conducting the interview?
Now that you have some specific information, you can set up for the interview.
First by asking them what they need to know or are requesting, you can now research the subject. It maybe something as simple as the details of a recent incident or it may be more complex like dealing with a personnel matter or budget request. Make sure you know all the questions the reporter is going to ask:
Where you conduct the interview is real important. Sometimes a neutral setting is best. If you had a rough incident where something didn't work out right, such as a hydrant didn't work, you don't want to do your interview in front of the building that burned down. Many times you can suggest doing the interview in front of or the side of one your apparatus. It is visual and neutral. Never give interviews from your office. Reporters while in your office can scan around looking for other details on your desk, conference table, or on a board. Conference rooms are my preference if it has to be done indoors. If you don't have a conference room, any other room such as a training room or hallway can do.
Knowing who is conducting the interview also gives you some insight as to what direction the story is going. The PIO should know the reporters in their area and their demeanor. If you find out that one of the investigative reporters is going to do the interview, red flags should go up. If it is a general assignment reporter, it may not be as rough.
When setting up an interview, reporters have a few responsibilities themselves. They include:
IDENTIFYING THEMSELVES and the organization they represent.
STATING THE PURPOSE of the interview, what is it all about? They should give you some idea of what the interview is all about so you can do your research. There is no problem asking what specific questions they are going to ask in advance of the interview.
ASKING FOR A SPECIFIC TIME AND PLACE for the interview and they should tell you about how long it will take for the interview.
ASKING YOU IF WOUNDN'T MIND ANSWERING A FEW QUESTIONS - This is the Miranda warning for reporters. After you agree, that means they can use anything you say from that point on until they leave the scene, not just during the interview.
NOT STANDING YOU UP - If the media requests to do an interview, they are supposed to honor that request. Rarely, but on occasion, you will be stood up. Sometimes while they are enroute to do the interview a breaking story occurs and they are detoured by the news director to cover the breaking event. They should at least call and tell you what happened. It doesn't happen very often, if it does; do not let it upset you.
THE MEDIA IS NOT OBLIGATED TO USE YOUR INTERVIEW - Sometimes you will do an interview and then they do not use it. Many reasons can occur why it was not used and it is not a good practice to call ask why it wasn't used. Sometimes the interview is used for gathering information and they only use the interview to write the story.
YOU SHOULD NEVER ASK IF YOU CAN SEE OR READ A STORY BEFORE IT RELEASED BY THE MEDIA. They are not obligated to do so and they will be strongly offended if you ask.
Before you agree to do an interview, make sure it is approved by your superiors and you are able to do the interview. If you are not sure, tell them you will call them back and let them know. Once you agree to do an interview, follow through. DO NOT CANCEL an interview, if you do it appears you are hiding something and they will never leave you alone.
MAKE SURE YOU CAN AND ARE WILLING TO DO IT BEFORE AGREEING
I next's month's article we will continue to exam the process of interviews, going into more depth on interview tips and determing who should be selected to represent your department.
If you have any questions or comments, please call me at 702-229-0145 or e-mail me at email@example.com.