With what is possibly one of the most varied and wide-ranging communication roles out there, Emily Lucht has been able to provide a wealth of advice on how to be the best PIO you can be.
You’ve got a wide range of skills. How important is it for PIOs to diversify?
Extremely important, in my opinion, because many PIOs are a one person band and I think the expectation is that a PIO knows the citizens they serve and the many ways they will interpret and understand a message. I also think it is important to find other PIOs who excel at certain categories that one may struggle with and network with them to figure out tips and tricks. This is the beauty of a Joint Information Center (JIC), being able to bring your talents that you feel you do well with and learn from other PIOs in the JIC who you can get to know and can help build up your weaknesses.
Working as Director of Communications at the state level must be a very challenging role. What would you say is the most challenging aspect of the work you do?
Meeting expectations. Our public information team is very good at what we do (maybe I am bias) but whatever the problem or situation presented to us within the department with our coworkers or externally with our fellow state agency representatives, we find a way to solve the problem. However, I think we have solved so many problems in such a quick turnaround time that the expectation is that we can solve ANY problem in very little time. The important take away from that is we (and this goes for all PIOs) need to communicate to others what our processes are procedures are and why we do them.
We need to be transparent with all stakeholders from the beginning on what is and is not achievable and how long processes will take in order for a problem to be solved. I think once that is established, then everyone knows we are doing whatever we can, but like all things, it is going to take some time. One thing I always hear as a government servant is "Government takes FOREVER!" And I think if we as communication professionals can be as open as possible and give updates as often as we can, people can being to understand why processes and procedures exist and why it takes time.
What are you responsible for on a daily basis?
Depends on the day. Some days I have the honor of attending groundbreakings, grand openings, ribbon cuttings, and project tours with our Secertary. When I am with him on those days, I get to put on my storytelling hat and document our day and update the public via our social media, blog, newsletter, or other digital communication on the work our agency has completed or is working hard to complete.
I have been known to pick up a phone call or email from a media partner and help them answer questions from our latest press release. Other days I get to put on my videographer hat and film fun engaging videos that better explains our latest programs. I am very passionate about ensuring accessibile content for all of our citizens, so you may catch me testing a social media platform's accessibility functionality or training our staff on how to many an email more accessibile. Or, you may find me in a meeting with our leadership going over the team's latest accomplishments and building on that success.
Being so close to Washington DC must present some unique challenges in itself. How important is partner working to you and what type of agencies do you regularly interact with.
I have been called to serve the State of Maryland over the last seven years in emergency management, school safety, and now housing and community development. I have had the honor of working with so many incredible people from the local, state, federal, nonprofit, and private sector. Without them, work simply wouldn't get done and the State of Maryland wouldn't be where it is today. We have responded to emergencies like snowstorms, civil unrests, hurricanes, school shootings, environmental needs, etc. together. Without each other - we do not move forward and problems cannot get solved. United we can and have done so much to respond to, recover from, and mitigate against those disasters.
What is the most enjoyable aspect of your work?
Many things. First, I would say the people I get to work with that are just as passionate as I am - from every corner of the country. The people that helped me and went through the same frustrations and stress or celebrated the same successes and accomplishments for those trying events and experiences - they are my friends and my network. I have met so many incredible and knowledgeable people who have helped me get to where I am today. They are amazing and pretty much my "work family." We have each other's backs 24/7 both professionally and personally. I think the other enjoyable piece in my work is the fact that I get to serve my fellow Marylanders by providing that transparency that not all government organizations have built into their strategy. I enjoy trying to figure out what type of content will make that want to know more about our agency and what makes us who we are. From an emergency public information side, getting the right information to the right people at the right time so people can make the right decision for themselves and their family - that is key to the success of any message for any PIO. I know my message is going to help keep families safe and that is a honor I don't take lightly.
Don't be afraid to "get in there" and offer support where you feel you can really excel.
Your path has been through digital and film. Did you find you had to enhance any of your other skills to be successful in your current role?
Yes, and it is something I am still doing today. The role of a PIO is continuously changing and depending on the situation, it is never the same day-in and day-out. As crazy as it sounds, while I was working for different news organizations - I still really struggle talking to our media partners. I try to follow other PIOs on social media who can really pull it off. I study their press conferences and media briefings and take notes, but I am always afraid the media is going to ask me a question that I will not answer properly or I won't know the answer to at all. I think having those connections either via social media or personally, can help enhance anyone's weaknesses. Also, PIO trainings have helped with many of my other PIOs skills that I feel are a strength for me.
When you look for a great Public Information Officer, what do you want to see in terms of skills and personality?
Someone who is personable and can do a great job of breaking down communication barriers. Someone who can easily explain to people how a program or process works without getting too far into the weeds. Someone who knows and understands the audience who will be receiving the messages they will deliver and can foresee and address the gaps and misunderstandings that may pop up during the delivery of the message. Someone who isn't afraid to make and learn from mistakes and is willing to "get in there and get it done."
What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to be a PIO?
Make mistakes and grow from them. It is the best way to learn. Ask questions, even those questions you think are too simple and you feel you should already know the answer to. You don't know and you won't grow unless you ask. Don't be afraid to "get in there" and offer support where you feel you can really excel. You know your strengths and your weaknesses so don't be afraid to simply say "I can help with this." Your fellow PIOs or even leadership, especially during an emergency response, are not always going to ask you for help and get to know your qualities. You need to be eager and show them what you got. Have confidence in yourself - you got this!
Be willing to spend some money and invest in some resources and training now so you don't have to pay for it (monetarily and legally) later.
What advice would you give to town and city PIOs who need to work with a communications team at state level?
Talk to us and reach out to us before you need us. It is always much easier to get to know someone and establish a relationship with them before you need them. Any tabletop exercises, networking opportunities, trainings, etc. you see are being offered, sign up for them and introduce yourself. We try to do that too so we can get to know your town/city's needs, but sometimes, it takes two or three opportunities to establish that great relationship. Use that time to discuss protocols, processes, procedures, needs, strengths and weaknesses, training needs, etc. and create that transparency with one another so you are on the same page and understanding one another.
Are there any books, podcasts, websites or any other resources you would recommend for the comms pro?
- The Extremely Busy Woman's Guide to Self-Care: Do Less, Achieve More, and Live the Life You Want (A Self Care Journal Gift for Women and Busy Moms)
- The PIO Podcast with Robert Tornabene
- GovComms: The Future of Government Communication
What would you say to anyone else in a leadership role about having a PIO who might not have one?
Invest in one now. They can handle the look, voice, and brand of your agency and ensure that your agency's story is being told in the best way possible. But, be sure to trust them to do the job and include them and the procedures they help develop in your overall mission and goals you have for your agency. Include them when the media needs answers to questions and trust them with your remarks - it will make your role as a leader easier. Include them wherever you can because the transparency you offer to them will help them tell the right story of your agency. There will be tools they will request to help them do their job better, be willing to spend some money and invest in some resources and training now so you don't have to pay for it (monetarily and legally) later.