Monday, September 15, 2014

Be the lead dog

When my sons were both in elementary school, they had a great first grade teacher who used some interesting learning techniques and events to reinforce what she was teaching. One of the events she tied into was the famous Iditarod dog sled race held every winter across Alaska.

She taught the kids about distances, temperatures, how to calculate miles per hour... the works.. They learned about Balto, the brave sled dog that helped bring medicine to Nome to save the inhabitants from illness. Since the lessons were tied to an actual event, the kids became totally immersed in the happenings. They would pick their favorite contestant and follow along as the race unfolded. The highlight of the lesson was when she brought her Siberian Husky to school so the kids could see what a real sled dog looked like. 

A sled team pulling together, following the lead dog
While the kids learned a lot in the class, one important lesson I learned  is an expression I use a lot in my everyday work - unless you are the lead sled dog, the view never changes. Why is this so important? 

Well, every year, the National Hurricane Conference hosts a number of classes, seminars and round table discussions on all topics dealing with disasters and preparedness. One of the most popular is the media/public information round table discussion, featuring members of the media, former Hurricane Center directors and other luminaries. 

The media panel at the 2014 National Hurricane Conference
One thing I have noticed about attending these round table discussions for a number of years is that the attendees seem to have no problem identifying the issues that plague their preparedness activities. Every year, many of the same participants bring the same concerns to the floor. 

While it's a great start to identify what shortcomings exist, the problem is that the following year when the next iteration of the round table event happens, the exact same problems are brought to the fore. Many times, they are voiced by the people who spoke about them the previous year.

Earlier this year was the first time I was asked to sit on the prestigious panel, and when it was my turn to weigh in on the topic, I called the attendees attention to the concerns they voiced and asked them, "If you had a magic wand, how would you solve the problems?" 

Too many times in public information work, we can recognize the problem, but we are too bashful, unsure of ourselves or beholden to existing work regimens to suggest improvements. Those instincts tend to hold us back from taking the lead on issues and fixing the problems we have no problems recognizing. 

Why not get certified to instruct a class, or take one yourself?
So, I will lay down the same challenge I made to the folks in the room at that round table discussion - now that you know what the issues in your community are, how will you address them? 
  • Are there not enough trained public information officers in your region? Why not volunteer to become a certified instructor to teach an accredited PIO class to spread the knowledge? 
  • Does the media not come to your events? Why not dedicate the time to feeding the reporters stories on a regular basis and making contact with them by phone or in person? 
  • Don't have the budget to conduct a public education initiative? How about seeking out grant funds or finding co-sponsors to bring your event to fruition?
Remember, it's not easy being a lead sled dog, but your view will always be better than it is in the back of the pack. 

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

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