PIOs occasionally ask me for advice. Even if they don't ask, here's the advice I give in part or whole to those who may want to stand up in front of a group or do media interviews:
1. Be true to yourself. The easiest way to lose credibility is to pretend to be someone else. People will know right away. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
2. Be humble. The ancient Greeks wrote a lot about hubris for a reason.
3. Be honest. Albert Einstein's quote applies to our work: “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”
The PIO community has made great strides over the last 10-15 years by expanding how we think of our audience to include Spanish speakers. It is now routine to have updates and social media posts translated into Spanish and you can usually find a Spanish-speaking PIO on most large incidents. There is support for this from both the greater organizations and the response community. (And kudos to those who have pioneered sign language at public meetings and other Info events.)
In chapter 5 of Theorizing Crisis Communication, authors Timothy Sellnow and Matthew Seeger refer to the Incident Command System (ICS) as "rigid, hierarchical" and suggest ICS "does not account for emergent groups or flexibility as disaster situation changes." They further quote another scholar who describes ICS as "ineffective for large-scale disaster response because its centralized structure cannot mesh with the political and social realities inherent in American Society." Finally, the last and most significant criticism of ICS documented in the chapter is that "the bureaucratic model lacks flexibility and does not accommodate collective improvisation..."
Needless to say, these criticisms do not match my experiences.
There is a disconnect between practice and academia in how we describe and define what PIOs do. Practitioners tend towards the positional descriptor, incident information, which is not frequently found in the academic literature. Crisis communications seems to be the preferred term for scholars. However, that can refer to a whole host of public affairs, corporate communications, and incident information issues. Most often, you will see it applied to reputation management studies where topics like damaging rumors or corporate malfeasance are covered. Some writers use crisis communications to mean just about everything to include incidents, but still focus a bit more on the business world. A few scholars started using disaster communications to separate out the communications issues associated with incidents like fire, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and hurricanes. That sounds a little sensational and doesn't quite apply to some all-risk assignments, so right now, I'm stuck between crisis and incident.
It comes from our very first comment ever and was offered by Dean Siebold in response to this post. Says Dean:
It's an election year and a potentially chaotic one. That means candidates from all over will have "asks" of our firefighters, incident management teams, and agencies. Some will certainly try to wrap themselves in the image of firefighters.
About the time I finally became a Type I Public Information Officer, I became frustrated with the inability to advance my knowledge and skills beyond the standard courses. After maxing out on NWCG and FEMA classes and then teaching everything I could, there was no set avenue for further learning. Local colleges offered Communications courses but there was nothing in those classes that would get at what I wanted, assuming I could even describe what I wanted.
It all led me to the obvious conclusion that there is a training and information deficit for advanced PIOs and Public Affairs Officers in government service. This will be the first in a series of posts where I talk about what I have found out there and I hope it will engender discussion and recommendations from others. This is certainly not to be considered the final word--it is merely what I found to be useful information.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.