From print journalist to Public Information Officer via some of the most challenging - and innovative - roles, Dionne Waugh has contributed significantly to the profession of public safety media.
Her experiences include, but are by no means limited to, a mass shooting and widespread devastating wildfires. Through her day job and her involvement in the IACP (International Association of Chiefs of Police) she has experienced a wide range of work that has taken her right where she wants to be in her career and allows her to share valuable lessons with peers.
Tell us about your background and how you ended up where you are now.
I started my career as a print journalist and my degree is in communications. I thought I would be a newspaper reporter my whole life. Just over thirteen years ago, there was an opening at the Richmond, Virginia Police Department for a PIO, and I applied for it and that completely changed the trajectory of my career.
I was with Richmond PD for six years and it was about the time when social media was getting outside of college, so I created social media accounts for RPD, which was one of the first law enforcement agencies in the country to do that, and we got a lot of recognition for that. This led to me finding out about a job that was a digital communications manager position at the Jefferson County Sheriff's office in Colorado where I was primarily doing social media for as well as (being a) backup PIO for about six years. I started working at Boulder PD about fourteen months ago.
What do your day to day communication activities look like and what are the challenges you face?
A lot of what I do is handling media inquiries about a variety of topics, and creating or sharing information on social media in a way that grabs people's attention. We do a lot of great work in Boulder, from helping some of our unhoused members to helping four legged friends, all kinds of things. So I just share a lot of that on social media, and primarily do media and social media work.
I think the hardest thing about this job is finding the different ways to communicate with our different audiences and by audiences. I mean, our community is very diverse. We have a lot of tech employees here, a lot of families and we have a huge student population, so everyone communicates differently, and everyone wants to be communicated to differently.
So it can be hard trying to find all the best ways to share the important information about public safety in the Boulder police, with those different community members, whether it's social media, or a monthly town hall with a chief or a print article in our local daily paper.
What would you say are some key lessons you've learnt throughout your career that you would pass on to other PIOs?
I would probably say that the last fourteen months of my career here in Boulder had been the most challenging ever. There are so many takeaways but I think one of them would be to have the hard conversations before crisis hits to talk about what happens if your community experiences a mass casualty incident? What if your department loses an officer or someone or an employee in the line of duty? How will you handle it?
What can you do ahead of time to make a tragedy or a horrible situation easier, somewhat easier to manage at the time, because I can tell you, at the time of the crisis is not the time to figure out how to manage things.
Second, most important thing would be to build relationships with community members and your fellow PIOs. again, before a crisis hits. There were so many people who just showed up in every single capacity to help the Boulder Police Department after the March 22 mass shooting, from my fellow communicators, to other law enforcement agencies, federal partners, community members. Everyone just showed up for a lot of reasons because it was their community and because they wanted to help.
And some of my communicators, it's because we've known each other and we've worked together for years, I could not have survived and been as successful as we were sharing communication or sharing information. So you want to build those relationships and you want to have a plan in place before something hits.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I will say what I love the most about my job is that I feel like I'm making a difference. I'm making a difference for my department in that I'm sharing information that's important for people to know in ways that people actually hear it, see it and understand and think about the information that they're learning.
I like to help people understand why law enforcement does what it does with the who, what, when, where, why, and how, from this side of it, but I also love helping law enforcement understand, this is why the community might think this and here's how we can help them understand better what we do by sharing this information this way.
So I love being able to help people understand more about how public safety and their police department works and how they can work together with the community.
What would you say is different, or has changed, about the PIO role since you started?
Something about the PIO role that I was not expecting would be just how different it can be depending on where you work. It's not the same at a sheriff's office as it is as a police department. It's not the same at a capitol city police department as a smaller mountain town type of community police department.
So the priorities are different. The politics are different. And the how you communicate with people, not just the topics, but how you do that can be so varied. For example, one community can embrace social media, another may not use it at all. And each platform might have some attention one way and another one might be more popular another way. So it really is different. And that was that was really surprising.
I would also say that something that I was not expecting was how much the communication industry can change. Law enforcement has changed since I started a lot. But the communication industry and how we do what we do has also changed with the introduction of social media, but also still how we work with traditional media, in addition to it varying by community, it's just so different from over thirteen years ago.
If you don't have the right motivations for doing what you're doing, you won't be successful.
Would you ever go back to being a journalist?
Even though I started out as a journalist, I do not miss that at all really, because I feel like I have found where I meant to be in life. One of the things I loved about being a journalist I feel I'm able to do as a communicator, and that is tell stories that are important for people to know in ways that grab their attention.
Whether it's using humor, or a certain social media platform, or working with traditional media with interviews and storytelling as a way to share information that's important for the community to know, so that they can make important decisions with all of the facts. That's what I liked doing as a journalist was telling stories and helping people understand information. That's what I do as a PIO for the Boulder Police Department; I am a communications liaison between the department and the community, helping both to understand the questions and the information.
What has been the most unexpected aspect of being a PIO?
I think the biggest challenge that I never expected, would be how personal it can be sometimes, sharing of information about certain topics (and that) can hit you hard in a way that you may have seen things or experienced things before. Some things will just hit you differently.
I think the one piece of advice I would give to someone who wants to be a PIO, actually comes from the amazing Simon Sinek, which is; what's your why? Why do you want to be a PIO? What drives you, what motivates you? Because at the end of the day, that's what it all comes down to. See: Start With Why by Simon Sinek on Amazon
If you don't have the right motivations for doing what you're doing, you won't be successful. You won't be able to push through a challenging time, or get through a roadblock. Or find a new way of thinking or a new tact on a project.
So find your why and go from there.
Are there any books, podcasts, websites or any other resources you would recommend for the comms pro?
As far as what resources I would recommend for a communications PIO. I'd say that those going into being a PIO these days have a lot more options and resources than I did over thirteen years ago. There's a great podcast, the PIO podcast by Robert Tornabene who has interviewed several awesome PIOs.
I'm proud to call friends and several other PIOs who do amazing work in a variety of different police, fire, government, federal and all kinds of other different capacities. And each one has a bunch of different skills, and perspectives and I've learned from all the ones that I've listened to. So definitely that podcast.
I would also say there's a variety of trainings, depending on your background, a lot of PIOs come from a reporting background. But for those who don't and want to learn more about comms, I've heard always heard good things about the FBI LEEDA training, I've never taken it, but it's one of the most highly regarded trainings in the country for how to communicate well with media.
I would also recommend the International Association of Chiefs of Police organization. It is truly what made me the PIO that I am today. When I was first a baby PIO, I was invited to join that organization and I have learned so much from all the training, webinars and the friendships and professional relationships that have come from being a part of that organization.
Always just keep learning and reaching out to people
I continue to learn to this day and I love how many communications professionals and other law enforcement employees come to these conferences and share their experiences, their thoughts and everything relating to law enforcement. It's a great organisation with a lot of great training.
I would also recommend the NIOA conference as well. It's an annual conference with police, fire, government, all kinds of other really great communicators who share who share their experiences on a variety of topics. It has some really good training as well and skews a little differently than just straight up law enforcement. You get different perspectives on different incidents, which is really good at this point for all communicators to have a variety of incidents, whether it's a law enforcement thing, or a fire, or a flood, or a pandemic, as the last couple of years have shown us.
You never know what you're going to deal with sometimes in this world, so having a variety of experiences, or training that you've attended, you will learn something from all of them.
Always just keep learning and reaching out to people who may have managed something if you're wondering how they managed that. Most communicators I've found who have gone through some type of an incident or unique situation. Once that clears, they're willing to talk about it, because a it helps them process but also helping others learn from what we experienced is one of the most rewarding things in our profession.
What would you say to anyone else in a leadership role about having a PIO who might not have one?
if you can have one, they're great. They will help you understand important aspects of communication in your community that you might not think about or be aware of because of your background or your experience.
They can also help you find ways to communicate the important information you want to get out in ways you might not think about. If you don't have one, you can also hone your communication skills by working with other talented PIOs from other agencies who would be able to talk to you and say maybe look at things in a different way. You should also try to go to PIO conferences or trainings held by law enforcement agencies, as a lot of talented PIOs attend who share their knowledge.
You can always learn a variety of different ways to communicate and work with your community because that communication is key. Even if you can't share certain information, or you can't give the answers you want to your community at that time. You can still find ways to communicate to show that you're transparent and help you keep your community informed about what's going on.
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