Monday, September 1, 2014

A Herculean task

Yes, it's Labor Day here in the United States, so most of us are kicking back, taking some well deserved time off and enjoying summer's last hurrah. Or, you might be on call, standing by just in case something happens. Such is the life of a public information officer.

Hercules slaying the Hydra
Since many of you are enjoying a well deserved day off, kick up your feet for a while and let me tell you the story of a guy who had to do a whole lot of work - Hercules. Also known as Heracles in ancient Greek mythology, he was the son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. In high school, many of us learned about his 12 labors, where he went to work for King Eruystheus in order to achieve immortality.

This Eruystheus fellow, well, he didn't particularly like Hercules, so, he assigned him nearly impossible tasks to accomplish in order to trip him up. Slay the Hydra? Check. Capture the Cretan Bull? Check. Go on a mythic panty raid and steal the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons? Check.

Clean that stable!
The one task that always made me laugh was the one where he had to clean out the Augean Stables in a single day. Since these cattle were immortal, they created quite a healthy layer of cow pies. Faced with nearly 30 years of accumulation, Hercules had to divert a river to flush the accumulated nastiness away, restoring the facilities to their shining state of cleanliness.

In the world of public information, sometimes it may feel as if it will take a Herculean effort to educate our public about the many dangers they face. How much time and energy is put into hand washing education as we enter the flu season? How many times do firefighters remind people to change their smoke detector batteries when the clocks fall back in October?  And, here in Florida, we have to constantly remind our residents that yes, every single year, there is the threat that a hurricane may affect where we live, and they should have a survival kit packed with the essentials.

Public education starts early
In many ways, this kind of work is more reminiscent of another famous figure in Greek mythology - Sisyphus, who had to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down over him time after time as he achieved the summit. There are days when it feels like this, and it's easy to become disheartened.

The truth is, however, that this kind of public education isn't an impossible task, and with repetition, it can save lives. The number of deaths due to home fires has dropped steadily since smoke detectors have become more common.  Driving deaths have dropped significantly with seatbelt use and strict DUI enforcement.  Extreme weather events are claiming fewer lives every year. 

Staying up to date as Hurricane Sandy approaches the New York metro area
Much of this is due to improvements in technology, planning and laws, but the vital link to the citizens is the public information officer. Without an effective campaign to push the information to the public through media relations, education campaigns and public speaking, how else would the citizens know what changes were being made?

So, this weekend, if you are not on duty, sit back, kick your feet up and relax, knowing that the hard work you are doing is making a difference, and that's important for all of us.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

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