Everyone has to start somewhere and if you are looking to be a Public Information Officer and want to know how to become a Public Information Officer, we've highlighted the key points. Being a Public Information Officer is a great career. Learn what you need to do to get started below.
What is a Public Information Officer?
Public information officers are responsible for providing accurate and timely information to the media, government officials, and citizens during daily agency operations and in disasters or other emergency situations. They help people stay informed of what is going on in their communities by communicating agency activities and initiatives, answering questions from journalists, responding to and commenting publicly in “real time” ensuring that important information and announcements get out quickly. This is especially true during emergency situations.
They produce and disseminate content and messaging for an agency or organization using a variety of communication tools and platforms, i.e. traditional (newsletter, magazine, annual report), digital (website, video content) and social media. They are the first point of official contact for media inquiries and a key contact for other agencies, community groups, citizens and any stakeholder impacted by their agency or organization. They are also responsible for managing press conferences and other events such as town hall meetings and dignitary visits.
Who do Public Information Officers work for and with?
An entry level PIO usually reports to a more senior communications manager/executive or, in smaller agencies, a more senior ranking official with expertise in public relations, public affairs, media relations or government administration. Often the agency Press Secretary or senior spokesperson (or Aide to the elected or appointed official that heads the agency) has a staff that includes PIOs.
At the core of the role, the PIO works for the public it serves and all the members of the agency who rely on the PIO to communicate accurate and timely information to stakeholders.
They also work with a variety of external customers including members of the media, community leaders, elected officials and all other stakeholders/constituents.
Because many PIOs are “on call” for emergencies, they must be prepared at all times to respond and represent their agency in a professional and knowledgeable manner, and if not, have made contingencies for who will respond. This is a 7/24/365 expectation of the person in this role.
What do I need to know about being a Public Information Officer?
Hard skills and experience
A four year degree is often a requirement for a job in a journalism discipline or related field. It is often in Public Relations, Strategic Communication, Journalism, Broadcasting, Digital Media, Advertising, Speech, Political Science, etc. Many PIOs hold graduate degrees, although hiring officials tell candidates that related experience is as (or more) valuable than a person with a graduate degree and no practical experience working with public officials and the media.
To become a Public Information Officer you need to have a few years of experience in communications-related professions such as print or broadcast journalism, or marketing and strategy roles in a dynamic or regulated industry that relies on service to the public and effective communication (utilities, banking, insurance, retail). You also need to be an excellent communicator to include: presentations; writing articles and stories (news and feature style, speeches for others, and social media content); photography, videography and editing; SEO, list services and direct mail programs; and a host of softwares to include graphics (i.e. Adobe and Canva), HTML and Wordpress and other website platforms.
A key part of the role includes strong communication skills on social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Meta, Insta, Twitter; and social media monitoring, archiving, and scheduling tools. A proficiency in both the Google and Microsoft suites of products. Today, the best PIOs are expert at facilitating meetings on Zoom and Teams, they know how to leverage video conferencing platforms and recording tools. Many know how to use project management programs like Basecamp and Jira .
Soft skills and personality
You must be a good writer (grammar, brevity, clarity) to be a professional communicator, which is the essential function of the PIO. Good PIOs are responsive, organized, diligent and are able to take complex information and turn it into information that the public understands. Attention to detail combined with excellent listening and people skills are key characteristics of successful PIOs.
Truthfulness, ethical conduct in challenging situations, and a desire to help people obtain all the information they need to make informed decisions is what drives information officers. An understanding of how newsrooms operate and what reporters need, as well as the tenacity to pitch a story and correct misinformation with accurate information are also important skills. PIOs understand all of their agency’s rules, regulations, the laws relating to their agency’s functions, and the protocols that ensure the PIO is facilitating the agency’s goals regarding transparency and responsiveness to the public as professionally as possible.
Top notch information officers/communications professionals are voracious consumers of news and current events about the industry in which you work. What are the trends in our business? What are the issues on the horizon? Are there regulatory changes coming? PIOs are experts in their business/industry and how it operates.
Continuing Education, “Trade” Associations and Accreditation
PIOs should also want to be the best PIO possible. Many hiring executives value the skills of a Public Information Officer who is dedicated to their craft, and is committed to improving by spending time with colleagues in their community, state and beyond. In addition to the industry in which the PIO serves, they can also often join public relations and public affairs associations.
This contributes greatly to professional growth and networking. Learning the latest tactics from trusted colleagues and honing the skills shared among top spokespersons, emergency management communicators, government and military communication strategists, and corporate public relations practitioners is important in high functioning organizations.
Annual conferences, webinars, summits are all offered by these associations. Membership costs do apply, but many employers will cover those costs as they value your continuing professional education.
There are examinations and peer reviews for accreditation and certification in many states and among national organizations in this profession. The Public Relations Society of America’s Public Affairs and Government Section; The National Association of Government Communicators; National Information Officers Association; and in most every state there is a public relations, public affairs, and/or public information group with membership open to anyone working in the field.
What do you earn if you become a PIO?
Salaries vary from state to state and some local government and smaller agencies have a hiring range (depending on qualifications) for an entry level position of $45,000 - 60,000 plus benefits in most markets.
There may also be an opportunity in a very small agency, or a company that has never had a PIO before, or in the non-profit sector (also called Public Relations in the private sector) that offers less money but includes benefits and retirement. This can be an exceptional way to get your foot in the door.
What else do I need to know about becoming a PIO?
Becoming a public information officer is not easy without a college degree or the experience mentioned above. For those with a passion for understanding the needs of the public and how they consume information - and if you have the ability to balance that with helping your employer define and meet their objectives related to transparency, building and keeping the public’s trust, and sharing information that is accurate and timely - this is a very rewarding career.