Everyone has different reasons for becoming a PIO and some of them are not necessarily out of choice. It’s a given that some PIOs in any area have often been asked to take on the role or have arrived there through circumstances that were beyond their control.
While there are definitely those that see being a PIO as a calling, who have a passion for the role (which is most certainly more than just a job) there are those they may feel a little lost when it comes to the 24/7 grind of public and media comms. Combine that with a lack of leadership support in some places and you would be forgiven for thinking that it’s merely an afterthought or ‘treading water’ for these poor souls who didn’t know what hit them the day they started.
Trent Faris is Public Information Officer for York County Sheriff's Office and is a PIO Trainer. He’s seen it all on the spectrum of PIOS. From the ‘voluntold’ to the born to do it and all those in between, he has seen a trend in what leaders are expecting from their PIOs and how they are supporting them.
Here, Faris gives an impassioned plea to all those involved in this crucial function in any public safety and government agency.
Recently, someone asked a legitimate question on Twitter that elicited a number of responses that were definitely varied. The Tweet simply asked if the new PIO credentialing program and the FEMA Master Public Information Officer program is worth the time to complete. My response was unsurprisingly positive considering I deliver these courses regularly.
“I promise you will NOT be disappointed with the @FEMA_EMI #MPIO program. Not only will you get the best training, but you'll also create the best friendships & connections with the people in your cohort. Though our FY22 class is over, we still meet once a month online.”
Unfortunately, this was countered with a comment that this type of commitment was not necessary. The Tweet, long since deleted, triggered something in me that caused me to consider where this may have come from and why. I’ve worked incredibly hard like many of my peers to earn my FEMA MPIO certification and so would argue that this was in no way something that was unnecessary.
One of the most common refrains I hear from young and/or seasoned journalists making the shift into the PIO profession to free themselves from the daily grind of the news is “I was a reporter for (xx) years so I can be a PIO”.
Reporting the news doesn’t make you an expert in crisis communication. I was a journalist (MMJ) for 8- years prior to finding my purpose as a PIO and I learned very quickly I knew nothing about crisis communication. I made it a point to seek out every training opportunity given to me. The shift in news media has changed immeasurably in recent years and it’s understandable people want out, but with any career change, you have to put in the work.
We need former journalists in our profession to help translate the ever-changing world of traditional news media. Yet, I encourage these newly minted PIO’s to be humble as they enter the world of crisis communications and begin a new journey by seeking training from legitimate programs and learn from PIO’s who have several years of experience in the profession. Remember, very rarely is the traditional news media our target audience as PIOs.
Those that find themselves in the position of PIO without ever intending to be there understandably don’t want to put the effort into something they didn’t want to do in the first place. Maybe it’s a punishment posting, maybe it’s because of health reasons or they’ve simply been moved due to internal politics or an unexpected crisis befell them. Either way, it should be seen as a privilege and an opportunity to learn skills that so few get the opportunity to learn. It’s a rewarding role that will without a doubt lead you to greater things once you finally decide to leave or retire.
Equally, any good leader must know that by simply putting someone in post will lead to high turnover and a poor quality output of work and it will show when it all goes wrong. It’s up to leadership to also invest in this critical position.
I touched on this subject in my MPIO research paper How Under-Resourced Law Enforcement Agencies Can Build Trust and Transparency through a Dedicated Public Information Officer. In short, some small agencies without a full-time dedicated PIO may not have the financial backing, journalistic experience, or technological means to commit to having a fully trained PIO. I conducted a survey with Sheriffs and Police Chiefs of all department sizes. Out of 24 respondents, only six stated their PIO had taken the FEMA Basic PIO course, 2 were Advanced PIOs and zero were MPIOs. Half of the respondents replied their PIO took the FBI-LEEDA Media and Public Relations training.
Additionally, I surveyed the same law enforcement executives about if their PIO was solely dedicated to media relations and crisis communications. Of those respondents, 7 out of 31 were dedicated Public Information Officers, the remainder had some other secondary administrative or support role.
I teach PIO courses. I’ve paid for PIO training courses where I learned from some of the PIO greatest of all time. The FEMA Master PIO program is far more than just another training course. You actually work, learn and network. You build nationwide friendships with colleagues where today if the ‘fit hit the shan’ I could call on them for help and they would be there lickety-split to support me in person or virtually. One must dedicate themselves and valuable time to this intensely challenging education of MPIO.
Several pre-requisites must be complete before even attempting to apply for the MPIO course. One of which is the Advanced Public Information Officer course, which I highly recommend for anyone who has never worked in a joint information center or may be thrust into the lead PIO role for a JIC. Once accepted to the MPIO program, you attend 3-weeks of amazing classes which include lesson on leadership, advanced concepts of communication, and then you observe plus evaluate an APIO course. You must write and pass a research project with an 80 or higher to earn the right to be called Master Public Information Officer. I state all of this not to be a cheerleader or salesman for the MPIO program, I just reiterate it’s more than just a run of the mill training where at the end of the week you get a certificate you’ll stuff in a desk drawer.
On the job training or handling real world incidents as a PIO is just a small percentage of the job. Those who claim they don’t need training or don’t have the time for training won’t serve in any JIC where I’m in charge. Don’t get me wrong, handling real-world incidents is beneficial to the learning process. No football team has ever won a championship just by practicing all the time; they need real game experience to better themselves. These professionals play one game a week while practicing and honing their skills the other six days.
Time is relative. Those who claim they don’t have time for training are fooling themselves and making excuses. I completed the MPIO Program this year while also going through the 16-week Class 1 law enforcement certification at my agency and the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. I achieved this while still serving in my role as PIO.
The title PIO doesn’t mean much if you don’t train and build relationships with other PIO professionals. There are plenty of courses out there that claim to provide good PIO training but like any service, you must do your homework before you go ahead and spend public money. Some are amazing and some are at best, questionable. I’d be happy to talk to anyone about options that will serve them well.
As my mentor, colleague and friend Judy Pal said, “Work hard every day to earn the legitimacy and credibility you need to be that credible voice during a crisis.”
Get to work, well trained PIO professionals. We have lives to save.