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Considerations for the Digital Public Information Officer (PIO)

This topic has come up time and time again here on GovLoop and I felt it was time to revisit the greater discussion involving use of social/new/2.0/3.0/etc technology for the purposes of emergency response, recovery, mitigation, citizen engagement, and so forth through the optic of the PIO. To this end, an entire world-wide group of professionals has been attempting to get their arms around this use of social media and technology for quite a while now. Usually refered to as the #SMEM (Social Media in Emergency Management) community, this group has multiple sub-groups and individuals working issues and trying to share the ever important lessons learned and best practices of this growing enclave of information sharing. (They even hold weekly twitter conversations, or tweet-ups, where topics are covered from accross the spectrum of issues and even the world!)

So where to begin? The good folks at CrisisCommons and the entire #SMEM community constantly are in discussion on the values and challenges surrounding the use of social media by organizations to pass important emergency related information during a disaster. For the sake of this discussion, I will be focusing on the role of social media from the context of keeping people informed. Specifically, I was intrigued to write on this topic after reading a piece by Patrice Coultier entitled, “Of Emergency Warnings and Being Convincing.” Patrice has provided an interesting (..and international) look at the way emergency management organizations use tone and different styles of approach in delivering important emergency information to citizens. This ultimately got me to thinking about the role of the Public Information Officer (PIO) and the integration of technology tools in assisting in providing information to the masses.

With social media now a more common piece of every day information flow around the globe, and very much so here in the United States, I am left to consider its impact on the PIO’s day-to-day job. As many are already aware, the PIO’s primary job is to act as the “official voice” of an organization and in this case we’ll assume the PIO to be a part of a governmental function. Therefore, during an emergency this person is the individual, or team of individuals, who should be providing the public with information on an emergency as the official source. (This is where Patrice’s article on approach, tone, and the like comes to play.) However, I feel that more and more in today’s technology laden landscape the PIO in many jurisdictions have either entirely ignored the social media space, misused it, or are just starting to grasp it. To this end, I think there are some key items that should be considered:

  1. Be the Official Source: This seems far to logical to be stated, but I feel a lot of jurisdictions have let this basic concept of PIO work go by the way side, simply because a new technology is at play. Think of it this way: The PIO’s job has not changed in the new social media landscape, it has simply been expanded. PIOs should not be doing anything more, less, or different than before. Social media is simply another tool in the tool box of a communications professional (the PIO) to use and reach his/her target audience. To this end, the PIO should work in social media, as appropriate, to their communciations plan and work with social media outlets to obtain “verified” and/or “validated” accounts where possible. This allows the PIO’s presence on the internet to be a confirmed, trusted, and official source for information.
  2. Open the Two-Way Street: For the longest time the job of a PIO was to push information. With today’s technology PIOs can act as a two-way conduit for information to the public and information received by the public. Opening up this two-way dialog during an emergency allows PIOs to get the important, validated information out, but also take in new information from the public. This allows response organizations to better plan for operations, but also allows the PIO and the emergency management organization to validate issues and reissue confirmed statements to the public writ large. Remember, this is a huge issue with social media: After a disaster many people will begin self-reporting information creating a cross section of accurate, embellished and completely false information that many people will take as accurate unless someone steps in as the official source and validation point for information. This is a function best owned by the PIO shop and is honestly the best place for growth right now in the SMEM world in my opinion.
  3. Be Honest: One item that used to be difficult for some PIO organizations was the ability to be 100% open and transparent during events. This is an older model of only releasing 100% confirmed information while remaining silent on unresolved/unconfirmed issues. To this end, social media has made it more possible for PIOs to obtain more information faster and get it back out faster and more widespread. (Just as mentioned above, the two-lane street is open for business and can some times be a super highway.) One of the greatest impacts of using social media is the ability to interact and be part of the situation. Often times PIOs are seen as the one on TV that just pushes random information while being separated from the event. Now, PIOs can be in the mix and engaging their public directly and one of the best ways to obtain trust and authority is to be honest in your transactions. I think you will find that many people will provide more information and be more willing to follow instructions and guidance if they feel like they are directly involved.
  4. Recruit, Standardize, and Innovate: Let’s face it, PIOs have it pretty rough some times and much like their host organizations they are generally drastically understaffed when things start happening. This is not lost on many of us, in fact there are many volunteer organizations out there that exist purely to fill the void during disasters, however it’s time we start looking at the problem in front of us and begin working on filling the gaps. Social media use in disasters have resulted in a flood of information at the one time that many shops down’t have the personnel to sort through the noise and find the information that is most important. To resolve this I am becoming a heavy supporter in the age of the “digital first responder.” A phrase, that the Red Cross seems to get most credit for coining, that basically means volunteers that will help become the PIO’s filter during an emergency. This cadre of volunteers can be brought together whether it be via existing Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers, Red Cross volunteers, or via standing up a specific volunteer group for this function. (Such as Ham Radio operators: The Emergency Communications Catalyst) Train these individuals in the processes of you organization, basic emergency management, and put them to work in front of a computer helping to organize information as it comes in. This frees up the PIO, but also ensures that the public is heard and answers are provided. (They help the two-way street from becoming one-way and a potential hazard to your communications.) This is the greatest area organizations can innovate and help standardize their social media engagement during emergencies.
So, this may be a fairly basic list, but I think there are many things to consider here and hope to spark a conversation or two. Everything from ensuring that PIOs and getting information out to the public aren’t being run over by the technology train that is social media, to not forgetting the basics of emergency communications. The methods of delivery may change every day, but the basics of obtaining, validating, then pushing out accurate information to the public will remain the same through the end of time. Being able to stay on task and ensuring the public gets the information they need, when they need it, and in a format they understand is key. Take some time and look at your organization and how you handle information flow. You may find your process needs tweaking, not the tools. (I recently wrote on this topic as well: Social Tools Do Not A Process Make) With a solid communications and citizen engagement plan in place, social media and other tools should simply fall into place and allow organizations to innovate as they see fit to best assist a public in need during a disaster.

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