Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Gathering intel

So, a big part of my job now that I am moving across Tampa Bay is to get a handle on my new employer - Hillsborough County. I have been reading up on the county's initiatives, how they are addressing concerns and what is being considered critical as they move forward.

It's funny, because this is exactly one of the first steps a good PIO is supposed to do in any situation. Roll up, get a situational briefing and observe what's taking place with his or her own eyes, if possible. Of course, with something like a hurricane, it may be difficult to hitch a ride on a hurricane hunter aircraft, but that may be another discussion for another time.

One of NOAA's Hurricane Hunter P-3 Orion aircraft
The importance of that initial phase of gathering information can't be understated. As a public information officer, it's your job to not only know what's happening at the scene, but to also help your incident commander determine what will be asked by the reporters. Those folks may be so tuned in to fixing the problem that they totally forget to even consider what the public wants - or needs - to know.

So, how can you help? It's easy - you have to think like a reporter.

Woah, pump the brakes there, pal...
"Woah!" you are thinking right now. "Tom, I never worked as a reporter! Aren't they the bad guys?"

No way, Jose. Remember that reporters are looking to get as much information as possible to tell the story to the end user - the public. And, you can be sure they are going to ask multiple questions, but they all are going to start with who, what, when, where, why and how. In fact, Dr. Vincent Covello of the Center for Risk Communications put together a list of the 77 most commonly asked questions by reporters at a scene. You can print out a copy for yourself and keep it tacked over your desk. Look at it every day. Print out a few more copies. Put one in your go-kit. One in your car. One on your night stand. Get to understand what reporters are looking for, and you will be a step ahead of the questions.

Bill Wade
Another subtle yet effective technique I picked up from retired Tampa Fire Rescue Captain Bill Wade was to approach reporters as you arrive on the scene and ask them what they have heard. Many times, you may not even be able to even get that question out - the reporters will be looking for answers. Tell the reporters you are looking to get their answers for them, and then at your meeting with the incident commander, tell him or her, "Hey, here is what I am hearing from the reporters. What do we know?"

Easy peasey, and you will look like a hero to both your incident commander and the media.

Now, I have to go stuff some more things into a few more boxes. That last day is creeping up on me fast!

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

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