Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Don't panic

Growing up, I loved to read. It was a great way to spend my down time, when I should have been doing homework, yard work, chores ... whatever. I could pick up a good book and get lost in the pages, especially when the book was exceptionally well written.

One of my most favorite books of all was the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Written by Douglas Adams, the book - actually, it was one in a five-part trilogy - was about Arthur Dent, a mild-mannered Englishman, his friends, a harrowing escape from the destruction of the planet Earth for a planned space highway and the adventures that follow. 

In the series of books, I discovered a number of important lessons. Namely, you should never go anywhere without your towel, listening to Vogon poetry is an awful experience, Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters are great drinks if your plan is to never remember anything afterward - oh - and Don't Panic. Emblazoned on the front cover of the Hitchhiker's Guide, it was there to remind interstellar hitchhikers that, hey, things could always be worse.

Famous science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke stated that those two words were the most important piece of advice that the human race has ever been given. And, I believe they are two of the most important words of advice to give a public information officer.

OK, they looked kind of like this...
I remember about a year ago I had an opportunity to speak with members of a leadership group. We treated them to a boring lecture where they sat and listened to several of us go on about how government functions. I could tell in an instant that they were totally bored. 

Fortunately, one of the coordinators for the class recognized the rolling eyes and decided that no, there was no way this was going to work.  No, the next class was going to get the full-court-press.

So, we put together an exercise to take place at our Emergency Operations Center. A hurricane scenario. People would have specific jobs to do. There would be surprise injects. From the moment we got the official 'OK' to proceed, we put the students through their paces. Roughed them up. We had calls coming in all over the place. Media banging on the door asking questions. We finally ended with a mock press conference.

The final press conference
At the end of the scenario, I asked if anyone had any questions. The poor person who was made the lead public information officer asked me at what point I would panic during a situation like this.  I told her that we couldn't panic, because if we did, lives were on the line, and things could get ugly in a hurry. 

I explained that we had to work with our operations manual to go step-by-step through the process. We had to train our people relentlessly because when a situation did arise, we couldn't be trying to figure out what to do. And, we had to develop our relationships with everyone - fellow PIOs, the media, other agencies - so we could call on them to help us when the time came.

While it was only a taste of what a real event could be like, I could tell that the students were amazed at what went into the media side of a response, and that they had a new found appreciation for keeping your cool when things went wrong. 

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

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