Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Strange days

Being a public information officer has its moments. Sure, the vast number of days out there, you are busy pushing the preparedness message, passing along valuable life-saving information.

But, then, that time comes when you have to shift from preparation to action. We could be preparing residents for the approach of a hurricane, or a huge water main break with mandatory boil water orders and  massive traffic rerouting. When that threat is in your wheelhouse, you know exactly what to do, how to respond and what to say.

We have plans for events like these...
But then, there are those events that are kind of out there, that you never prepared anything for. A pandemic flu outbreak that comes out of nowhere. An oil well ruptures, spreading crude into the Gulf of Mexico.

Then there was the day in February of 2013, when a large chunk of meteorite crashed into Russia, setting off a massive shock wave which injured nearly 1,500 people and caused considerable damage.

The 2013 Russian meteorite impact
No, there's absolutely no planning for a humdinger like that event. And, even though the last time a major meteorite strike like that one took place in 1908, local media scrambled to localize the story.

As you are no doubt aware, localization is a great technique by reporters to ponder what would happen if that far-off event took place right in our own backyard. Believe it or not, two of our local stations called our office and sent over reporters, looking to do a story. You can still see both here:

The question is, of course, why on earth would we agree to do an interview?  After all, I doubt that anyone in any hamlet in any corner of the world really has a meteorite annex tacked into their comprehensive emergency plans.

Speaking with reporters opens communications channels to your constituents
We went ahead with the interviews for two reasons. First, we wanted to remind the viewing audience that emergencies take many different sizes and shapes. They can give us a week's worth of notice - like a hurricane - or just a few second's notice - like an earthquake or meteorite. That's why it's important for everyone to have their survival plans in place well in advance of an event - a point we can't stress enough.

Secondly, it helped us improve our rapport with the local media. By being available to them for such a strange story, we let our media partners know that the door is always open. Sure, we would have been well within our rights to tell them to check with the folks at NASA to talk about meteorite protection, but by speaking about the topic as a disaster plan, the reporters and assignment editors now know where to come for stories dealing with disaster preparation and recovery.

You know, just in case we get a disaster we are used to seeing.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

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