The Public Information Officer: A Multifaceted Role
PREPARING THE LINE OFFICER FOR THE SOUND BITE
BY JOHN W. GAMMON
“Car 1103. Scene of an apartment fire; 2nd alarm; code 701 firefighter. Incident command requesting the PIO ….”
The media are already there. Probing questions have already been asked. Names have already been released. Where did they get the information? They`re everywhere! The incident commander has a frantic look. Dealing with the media is not his top priority at this moment. Two firefighters are seriously injured.
The majority of fire departments around the country today recognize the need for an official spokesperson or public information officer (PIO)–a realization that is relatively new to the fire service. When a reporter is on the scene and the cameras are rolling, it is expected that the PIO would be making the statements. But what about the times when the PIO isn`t there?
PIOs have prepared for these incidents. They are members of professional organizations, have attended numerous classes and seminars, and are as ready as they`ll ever be. But what about the incident commander? Or the line firefighter? If the media can put trained professional PIOs through the wringer, what will happen when they start questioning an unsuspecting target?
A COMMON TRAP
Let`s see what could happen when a fire department representative not trained in media relations is approached by the press at an emergency. Let`s suppose that in the opening scenario, a reporter was given the following response: “No, ma`am, we have no firefighters injured. When the side of the building collapsed, we had all the firefighters back at a safe distance.”
How`s that for a sound bite?
Later, however, this sound bite accompanies the video on the air. The video shows two firefighters who not only are not a safe distance from the building but who are on a ladder as the side of the building collapses on them! The camera now cuts to a video clip showing both injured firefighters being loaded for transport. They definitely looked hurt. It sure didn`t look like they were at a safe distance from the building. What came across to the viewers was that the fire department surely didn`t look like it knew what the left hand was doing.
I`ll concede that the questions were coming quick and in a “witch-hunt” tone. The stressed incident commander did the only thing he thought he could do–lie and deny. The media could never find out. It would be his own little secret (his and the paramedics` and the nurses` and the doctors`).
But what about the PIO? Apparently, he was not well prepared. Being well prepared includes recognizing that commanders and firefighters, too, should be briefed on how to handle such situations.
In the extremely competitive environment in which media representatives vie with each other for an exclusive story or to be the first to get the story on the air, the media often arrive at an incident scene before the PIO.
If there is a real need for a PIO, then there also is a real need for line firefighters who know what to say and what not to say. The only way these firefighters can learn this is through media awareness training.
TEACHING AND REACHING THE FIREFIGHTER
A good place to start this training, after the commanding chief has given approval, is with the chief officers. If your department is anything like ours, having these veteran firefighters buy into this training is a good thing. Usually not critical but always willing to offer a healthy critique, they can help fine-tune the class so that it is not only palatable but even, dare I say, interesting.
The recruit class is a given. Recruits listen with interest. They`ll even call you “Sir.” They`re excited about their new career and are thrilled that their friends and relatives may witness their actions on the tube. The last thing they want is to be is an embarrassment. PIOs should be sure to be a part of their curriculum.
Then you have the tough crowd: the line firefighters. The best way to reach them is through your department`s training division. PIOs should lobby the director to have their short media relations course become part of the ongoing in-service training.
Another avenue PIOs have available in some cities is the I-Net television (closed-circuit broadcasts to each fire station). The class can be taped and aired with other training videos. I like to use this as a supplement or reinforcement only. I`m not too sure of the number of firefighters who will watch it instead of getting up to make a sandwich.
WHAT TO TEACH
Before you can teach anything, however, there must be a desire to learn. Trying to enlighten a firefighter in ways to interact with the media can be a battle in itself. Comments such as “I don`t have to talk with those vultures” and “That`s why they pay you the big bucks” come flying at you.
The Media Awareness Class need not be too complex. Each department should decide on the content, keeping in mind certain basics that should not be ignored. Our department`s class is still in its beginning stage; therefore, we would welcome your additions and comments. Our class covers the following:
The responsibilities and duties of the PIO.
The reasons the class is needed, especially the fact that any one of them could be the next prime target for that sound bite on which the department will be judged.
The types of media and their characteristics. This helps explain deadlines and the stress under which the reporters work. Pointing this out may prompt a lot of remarks. Encourage the discussions. They give firefighters a chance to vent some of their frustrations over their personal encounters with the media or coverage presented on the tube. After the media poundfest, try to change the tone.
The ways in which the media (print, radio, and television) can help put the department in a positive light by promoting the fire department`s smoke detector give-away, for example. It might come as a surprise to some firefighters in the class that the media can help the department.
What to say (and not say) to the press. The following points are emphasized:
–Never lie. Do not fib. Do not tell an untruth. You cannot and will not get away with it. One lie can destroy a good working relationship the PIO has worked to build. When a wrong guess or assumption is made, the press will consider it to be a lie. There is nothing wrong with saying, “We don`t know at this time.”
–There`s one question you can always depend on being asked: “How did it happen?” My favorite standard answer is, “It`s under investigation.” No matter what your opinion or educated guess, the answer is simple–“It is under investigation.”
–Even “off-the-record” comments should never include discussions of an ongoing investigation. In fact, there is no such thing as “off the record.” Whatever you say to the press can be written, repeated, or heard across the airwaves.
–How about releasing names of the injured or dead victims? They keep asking, and you know they`re going to hear it from somebody. Let them. They can hear it from all over the neighborhood but not from your department. I will not release or confirm any names they may have until the next of kin have been notified through the proper channels.
Remaining composed is very important.
–Do not let your emotions get the best of you. No matter how right you are, when you lose your cool, you lose your dignity (did you ever watch the Jerry Springer Show?).
–At no time do you want to be quick-tempered and yell at a press corps member unless he is about to be run over by a truck. You will come across as a panicky maniac. If viewers see a professional rescue worker panicking, they will think that there is something really wrong! Besides, your family would really not enjoy seeing you like that on TV!
Never put you hand up in front of the camera lens. Do you ever watch 60 Minutes? n
n JOHN W. GAMMON is a lieutenant in and the director of media relations for the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department, where he has been a member since 1983. He is an adjunct instructor for the Indiana State Fire Instructors and has a bachelor of arts degree in professional photography and is completing the requirements for an associate`s degree in fire science. He is a member of the National Information Officers Association, the Media/Emergency Services Organization, the American Red Cross Emergency Services Committee, and the National Fire Academy Alumni Association.