Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Bring out the boss

The first concert I ever attended was one for the ages. It was Bruce Springsteen. In Giant's Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Born in the U.S.A. tour. Shows don't get much better than that.

The Born in the U.S.A. Tour poster
I mean, come on. It is his home state. The guy puts on a concert with enough energy to power all of the homes and businesses in a moderately sized metropolitan area. We had seats, but never sat down - all three hours of it. It was awesome.

So, if someone tells you that they are going to take you to see The Boss in concert, you know it's going to be a big deal.

But, when is it time to bring out the boss at a scene?  No, not the hard-rocking New Jersey guy also known as The Boss, but the top elected official, the CEO or the president of the board of directors?

Let that question sink in for a few minutes. I'm sure that if you come from a small enough town and you are in a very small media market and there are only a few weekly newspapers, I'm sure the mayor could fill just about every single spot on an org chart. Chief of police? Fire chief? Dog catcher? PIO? Sure...

This guy might be the mayor of a really small town...
But, the larger the organization, the more that the mayor needs to bring on specialists. Someone who knows fire suppression. Someone who knows how to set up a municipal budget. Someone who knows the ins and outs of fleet management. And, as that number of specialized people grows, that mayor delegates the authority to others to handle day to day operations - and media relations.

That mayor then becomes the person who sets the vision for how the burgeoning city will operate. While still giving the overall guidance, he or she is hardly the expert on every single topic. So, while things are routine (the trash gets picked up, speeding tickets are written, city vehicles are being maintained, etc.) there is not a huge rush to get that mayor out in front to speak to the media about every single topic. When things are going smoothly, that's the time when most mayors talk about the future of their city, how they want to make their city someplace so desirable that people can't wait to move there, how they want to expand economic vitality ... you know, those campaign promises they made while running for the position.

But, there come those times when an incident happens where the boss has to come out to the front and do the talking. Typically, it's during a time of crisis. Perhaps an unprecedented weather disaster. Maybe a terrible accident. Maybe during an incident of incredible controversy that draws national - or even international - media attention.

Think back to major incidents and where the chief elected officials were. New York City Mayor Rudy Guliani on September 11, 2001 walking in the destruction of the financial district. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon meeting with survivors of the 2011 Joplin Tornado. President Jimmy Carter on scene during the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis in the spring of 1979.

President Carter in the control room of the crippled Three Mile Island reactor
Each time, those top elected officials were not there to direct the response. In fact, the security that goes along with a presidential visit can create a security headache even when there isn't currently a disaster.

They are there instead to show the residents ... the shareholders ... the constituents that they care about their welfare, and that they support the work of the experts they hired in the first place.

I was teaching a basic public information officer course just a few months ago when we had students simulate a news conference. The scenario one team was given was a tornado touching down in a small town. They had just about every role identified for the briefing, including someone from the local weather service office to explain - in great, technical detail - the size and power of the storm.

The only person they forgot to include?  The mayor, to at least just say a few appropriate words expressing her concern about the safety of her constituents, and that all of the people who were going to talk about the recovery had her unconditional support.

That, my friends, would have rocked!

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

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