Growing up in northern New Jersey, our family lived near a few state forests and - not too terribly far away - the Appalachian Trail cut through the state as it traveled from Pennsylvania to New York. And, during the summer, our 8th grade history teacher used to lead hikes through these state forests - sometimes as long as one week at a time.
Now, these weren't the kind of hikes where you went from a cabin to a cabin. No siree Bob. These were full contact, carry all your stuff on your back, eat canned tuna and sleep on the ground kind of hikes. And, we did this in the days before GPS, so our hike leader had to not only reassure a group of young teenage boys that bears normally don't carry campers off to eat them at night, but he had to keep us on the trail so we would eventually get home.
Some of the signs were pretty easy to follow. In fact, the trails were carefully marked with colored blazes - paint marks - on trees and rocks ensuring that if you stayed on the trail, you would eventually arrive somewhere. Another way he kept us on the path was by carrying a map, a compass and a pair of binoculars.
The map is a no-brainer. But, it was only as good as your ability to know which way you were headed. That's where the compass comes in. It allows you to orient the map properly, get your bearings and be able to move in the right direction.
The binoculars? Well, if the map told you that a certain rock formation or other landmark could be seen at a particular bearing, you want every advantage when it comes to spotting it.
What does this have to do with being a PIO? Everything.
How much of our job is simply finding out what our agency is up to? How many times have you 'discovered' that an agency you work with is having a big event only to slap their foreheads at the last minute to say, "Oh, yeah, we need to involve the media and get the public invited!" D'oh! You end up running around at the last minute trying to - as a good friend of mine once said - make chicken salad out of chicken excrement.
What we need to do on at least a weekly basis is remind the people who we work with that their leaders need to be holding the virtual 'compass' - helping to steer the organization toward the goal of community involvement and media participation at all times. This may mean bringing everyone together on the staff to talk on a regular basis about how these matters can be addressed, and maybe weekly reminders that we are looking for those stories that have a good hook to them.
And, the staff needs to be armed with virtual binoculars to be able to see beyond the next week or two to look off into the distance at big events coming up. Even people who deal with emergencies have major events throughout the year to plan for. Fire Prevention Week every October. The start of Hurricane Season on June 1. Tornado season. Wildfire season. Drought season. Safe holiday shopping season. Consumer Protection Week.
Get the idea?
By keeping you informed about these events months off, you can do the preparation well in advance. meaning that you will hit the ground running when the time presents itself instead of playing catch up.
Sure, it's hard work. But, once you climb to the top of that summit, there's an awful lot to see, and think of the accomplishment.
Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida