Not only does Scott Thomsen have a busy day job of running the Communications and Public Affairs operations at Ventura County Fire Department, but he is also the President of the National Association of Government Communicators. We spoke to him about his multi-faceted role and passion for supporting communicators.
Give us an overview of your role and what it entails on a daily basis.
I am the director of communications and public affairs for the Ventura County Fire Department in Southern California. I oversee our two full-time public information officers along with a PIO cadre of up to 15 firefighters who help out when needed. I also oversee our community education and outreach efforts. I have two managers on that side of my team, and a program with about 115 volunteers, photographers and chaplains who support outreach events, provide incident and event photography, and support people who have been impacted by a fire, traffic accident, medical issue or other event.
You’ve come to your role from TV, then editorial and private sector. How do you think this has prepared you for what you are doing now?
I started my career in journalism and spent 20 years in that field. Most of it was with newspapers, including the Orange County Register. I did a little TV work and produced news for print, online and broadcast with The Associated Press, including serving as news editor for the Seattle bureau. My journalism experience has been a huge advantage in my work as a PIO and communications director.
I look at situations first from the perspective of a reporter and the public. What do they want and need to know? What will help them understand the situation? What supporting content, like visuals, will they need to tell this story? Perhaps most importantly, I think about the questions they will ask, especially the tough ones, so I can prepare myself, my team and our subject matter experts for interviews.
When I go to pitch a story to a reporter, I try to put everything she or he will need together in one spot. They get all the interviews, visuals, b-roll and fact sheets at once. They're scrambling these days to keep up. Handing them a story that is easy for them to put together increases my chances of earning coverage, especially with TV.
What made you decide to make the leap?
Over the course of my journalism career, I encountered every kind of hiring freeze, right-sizing, down-sizing, sale of the company and reorganization I could imagine. With journalism shedding jobs by the hundreds, especially among veterans with higher salary expectations, each new chapter was getting harder to write. Then my wife got a promotion opportunity with a move back to Seattle, so I opened my job search into other areas. It was time. The journalism work that I enjoyed was disappearing at a lot of newsrooms. I was fortunate to find a boss who saw the value of my journalism experience and hired me at the municipally owned electric utility.
Good PIOs are honest, trustworthy, knowledgable, accessible and resilient.
Thirty three stations and 600 personnel. How do you manage to keep on top of all the communication that must be a part of such a large department?
We're a good size. We're big enough to have the equipment and resources we need to do the job, but not so huge as to be constantly scrambling on incidents. Being right next to the second-largest media market in the country gives us opportunities to gain national coverage, but we won't get that level of attention on every single little thing.
I'm also blessed to have a great team that works well together and a culture within the department that is strong on getting stuff done without caring who gets the credit. My team and I get a lot of support from across the organization and I can't say enough about the support that I have received from our executive leadership. When we see something that needs to be done, the expectation is that we will move forward to take care of it and we will have whatever support is needed to get it done.
If we don't work well together with a common view of what's happening, we will end up with inconsistencies in the information we share with the public. That would undermine public confidence in all our agencies and hurt the public's ability to make good decisions to stay safe.
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
Logistics. Our firefighters work 24-hour shifts on three separate rotations. And they are spread out across the county in the 33 stations you mentioned. So internal communications can be challenging. We want to make sure all our employees -- badged and civilian -- have access to information about what's going on within the department in a timely fashion. So we've been using a lot of streaming, video and mass text notifications to reach our colleagues. We also tend to add more time into the rollout for announcements so those firefighters who have four days off will get the information before they have to take any actions with it.
What do you love about your job?
I love the combination of public service and storytelling that empowers people to make good decisions.
You manage a team of PIOs, so what do you look for in a good PIO?
Good PIOs are honest, trustworthy, knowledgable, accessible and resilient. They pay attention to current events. They look around corners to see potential problems before they happen. They seek out opportunities to proactively tell the organization's story. And they are flexible and responsive to the inquiries from media, stakeholders and the public.
From a communication perspective, how important is it for you to work with other agencies?
It's essential, especially as a government agency. When the next big event happens - and it will - our firefighters will be working alongside sheriff's deputies, emergency management personnel, Red Cross volunteers, mutual aid from other departments and so many more agencies and people. If we don't work well together with a common view of what's happening, we will end up with inconsistencies in the information we share with the public. That would undermine public confidence in all our agencies and hurt the public's ability to make good decisions to stay safe. Building and maintaining those relationships is a big part of the job.
A PIO is more than a spokesperson. A good PIO can be a trusted advisor who will keep you aware
What would you say are your biggest challenges around community engagement?
We have a very diverse community. Each segment of our community has its own needs and likes. To truly serve all of them, we have to be thoughtful and intentional about how we communicate. That might involve using different channels for delivering a message, customizing the message for a particular audience, producing it in a different language such as Mixteco and Zapoteco, or collaborating with trusted partners like the Ventura County Farmworkers Program.
Are there any books, podcasts, websites or any other resources you would recommend for the comms pro?
I'm biased here, but this is my shameless plug for the National Association of Government Communicators. We offer monthly webinars for professional development, resources like social media policy templates on NAGC.com, a fall seminar and our annual Communications School in the spring.
What would you say to anyone in a leadership role about having a PIO who might not have one?
A PIO is more than a spokesperson. A good PIO can be a trusted advisor who will keep you aware of potential areas of concern so your organization can make good decisions that resonate with the public. In times of crisis, they will help you navigate the challenges. And they will constantly look for opportunities to showcase the good work your organization is doing. All of this protects and builds the reputation of the organization, which will pay off over and over whenever the organization has a need or faces a challenge.
Tell us a bit about the NAGC. How many members do you serve and what kind of work do you do to support them?
Currently, we have about 350 members at all levels of government. Our entire mission is to advocate for excellence in government communications, recognize that great work, and help the pros working in the field to grow professionally so they can serve their communities even better. We do that with training, resources, the Blue Pencil & Gold Screen Awards (We're accepting entries right now!) and sharing insights into the profession with discussions like our interview today. Thank you for that opportunity.
Check out the National Association of Government Communicators here