If an agency only has one Public Information Officer, they’d better plan for a back up.

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As a Public Information Officer (PIO), it is your job to gather, verify, coordinate, and disseminates accurate, accessible, and timely information on an incident’s cause, size, and current situation, resources committed, and other matters of general interest for both internal and external use.

You are working a crisis, you have been talking to the media, sending out social media and crafting both internal and external messages. Suddenly, you begin to feel ill.

At first you didn’t think anything of it. You decide to call it a day, maybe it’s the stress of the incident and some rest will help. You wake up the next morning, but you are not feeling well, you are dizzy and have a fever!

What is the alternative for when you go down? How will you manage this crisis for your agency?

Well, since the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic this is a very real possibility. So what is your contingency for when the Public Information Officer is unavailable? If you wait until it happens, it might be too late. Do you have one?   

If you don’t have one, now it’s time to think of what you should prepare for.

Who will be your backup? In most organizations unless you are one of the major city agencies like New York, Chicago, Boston or Los Angeles, your organization is a one-person shop.

Obviously, you are not working 24/7/365, and you are certainly entitled to personal time off. Most organizations relinquish the PIO duties when the PIO is off to a senior executive in the organization. They will handle on camera interviews as well as address telephone and email inquiries.

But when the crisis, unfolds and the PIO is unavailable, that executive leader will most certainly be involved in the management of the incident.

For this reason, it is extremely important to develop other staff members who can step in when there is a need to field telephone calls, take messages, monitor social media and, if necessary, craft a media release. Procedures must be put into place on how media releases are approved for release.

It is important to have developed relationships prior to any incident with other public information officers who may be able to assist. There are communities which have developed and have created Public Information Assistance Teams or PIAT’s.  

The DuPage County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has created a countywide P.I.A.T. and trained public information officers.  These groups would rapidly respond to requests for assistance, bringing with them experienced professionals to backfill areas needed and provide the staffing necessary to handle an incident through its completion.

But again, all of this is about having pre-planned procedures to have those resources in place prior to the incident occurring, as well as training your backup person to step into your shoes if you are not available or incapacitated.

PIO Manual

Do you have a contingency plan in place to address your absence for more than a few days? Do you have an organizational PIO manual? The manual will walk someone through some of the basic’s responsibilities of public information. If you don’t, now is the time to put one together. It should contain the following:

  • Contact list for local, national news media.
  • Usernames and Passwords for Social Media Accounts and services
  • Contact list for other local Public Information Officers
  • Emergency Operations Plans, note – may be a separate manual
  • Key Messaging
  • Phrases and words to avoid
  • Managing an onsite Media interview
  • Running a Press Conference
  • Calendar of Events and Activity
  • APA style guide for law enforcement specific language
  • Agency Style Guide, note should be a separate document
  • Bridging statements
  • Log Sheets, to document which reporters and news organizations contact you regarding a specific incident
  • Crisis Templates, these cover most incidents you may encounter. The templates help to anticipate the questions the media might pose and prepare your responses appropriately
  • Public Education Messaging
  • Messaging for Special Needs Population
  • National Incident Management System protocols
  • Joint Information Centers (JIC) activation

Putting all this information into the manual is a monumental undertaking, but it’s an important piece of the pie that makes your role as the organization’s Public Information Officer. It should be your responsibility to have these resources ready, with the thought to succession planning. Whomever takes over your position, if it is temporary or on a full-time basis the manual will assist them moving forward.

There are products available, as well as training that can be taken that will assist you in putting together your manual. Look at the National Information Officers Association (NIOA), FBI-LEEDA, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and identify if you have a state association that can assist you.

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Murdered officer's grave desecrated before headstone even placed

Training

 In addition to the basic training that you have taken as a Public Information Officer, consider getting others trained in a basic P.I.O. classes. There includes other course work, basic presentation skills, writing skills for journalists, which there are variety of free online courses available through the University of California Berkeley, Tennessee Board of Regents and University of Arizona.

Rest assured, preparation for the incident is important, but it’s equally important is to be prepared for your replacement.  

We are not superheroes, regardless if people think we are. We work insane schedules or hours as well as deal with very difficult people with poise and compassion.  It should be our job to make the roll of the replacement easier than when we took on the role!

By Robert Tornabene

Robert Tornabene is a law enforcement officer working with the Niles Illinois Police Department. In his 26 years in Law Enforcement with progressive advancement from a patrol officer, Sergeant, Commander and Bureau Chief. Robert has over 10 years’ experience handling Crisis Communications utilizing all aspects of media to interact and inform the public. Current president of the Northern Illinois Public Information Officers Association. Robert is a recognized expert in Active Shooter Training and is a resource for business, local governments and organizations in planning and development of crisis plans.

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