Friday, October 23, 2015

Educating your partners

I can remember it like it happened yesterday. It was 11 years ago this past August. Hurricane Charley was beginning to really look scary, and our emergency manager, Gary Vickers, ordered the largest evacuation in Pinellas County, Florida's history. A level C evacuation, which affected nearly half a million residents. Long time reporters in the media room were visibly shaken, having not seen something this serious since Hurricane Elena's near miss back in 1985.

Gary Vickers in the old Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center
That's when a young reporter raised her hand from the back of the room. "Mr. Vickers! Mr. Vickers!" she yelled, trying to get his attention. He recognized her, and she proceeded to ask one of the strangest questions I had ever heard in an emergency briefing.

"Can you tell our viewers what a hurricane is?"

I froze, stunned by such a basic question coming from a reporter. Didn't she realize her station had five meteorologists who had been going wall-to-wall on hurricane coverage once Hurricane Charley had become a thing? Didn't she understand that hurricanes are a big deal here in Florida? Why was she interrupting our media briefing with such an inane question?

A haboob, or dust storm, closes in on Phoenix, Arizona
Then, the reason hit me in a blinding realization. She was a reporter brand-new to the market from the desert southwest where hurricanes aren't a normal occurrence. To her, wildfires, flash-flooding and haboobs were the big threats where she used to report, not hurricanes. Based on her knowledge base, she wasn't 100 percent sure that her viewers knew what a hurricane was.

That's when I realized that our education plan was missing a major component - were we reaching the reporters in the market and educating them on the issues?

It was that point that we put into place some efforts to bring reporters up to speed on what we were dealing with in the Tampa Bay area. Our emergency managers worked more closely with the local TV meteorologists, often sharing the stage with them at public events to spread the word. We ensured that we had media briefings at the beginning of the season so they knew what the areas of emphasis were for that year.

Media briefings ensure reporters are up to speed
We even rolled that into other areas of concern. How does mosquito control work? Why is stormwater management so important? Why are people so vulnerable to fraud during the holiday shopping season?

And, that education effort has paid dividends by increasing coverage, helping residents get a better idea of why they need to pay attention - and through the thanks we get from our partners in the media.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

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