When prospective public information officers learn their craft, it helps to turn the tables for a while.
During an incident, the public information officer (PIO), whether that person represents an emergency management agency, a school, a hospital, or a county, coordinates with the media to disperse information to the public.
Last Friday, during the second day of a two-day training program for people interested in becoming full- or part-time PIOs, representatives of the media - television, radio, and print - joined the discussion for an hour.
Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry
Dealing with the media 101
Wes Hill, director of Beaver County Emergency Management Agency, introduces a panel of media representatives to a group of officials taking a course to become public information officers Friday at the Warren County 911 Center.
Wes Hill, Beaver County Emergency Management Agency director, and Brian Melcer, Lawrence County director of public safety, were the instructors for the Basic Public Information Officer training. The 18 students represented local, regional, state and federal agencies and organizations. The stated purpose of the program was "to prepare participants to function effectively in the role of full- or part-time Public Information Officers in the public safety/emergency management environment."
Melcer said the goal of both the PIO and the media is to get information to the public in case of a disaster. The relationship between the groups "shouldn't be adversarial," he said.
Although more accustomed to asking the questions, the panelists - David Belmondo and Rhys Holland of WJET-TV in Erie, Mark Silvis of Radio Partners, Andrew Hill of Media 1 Group in Chautauqua County, and Brian Ferry of the Times Observer - explained their expectations of a PIO in an incident and answered questions.
The PIOs wanted to know about the different time lines and expectations.
Radio has the ability to deliver news at just about any time, "getting information out as soon as possible especially if people need to act," Silvis said.
Andrew Hill said stations broadcast live if necessary to "direct people."
Television will generally get information out faster than newspapers, with several times set aside for news throughout the day.
Newspapers publish once a day and generally have firm deadlines. Any information that does not get in by deadline has to wait another day. Newspapers generally give more detailed information than the other media.
Advances in technology have enabled all media to disseminate information quickly and to broad audiences through websites and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Newspapers and television are interested in images - stills or video - for their consumers.
Holland, in particular, asked the PIOs to keep people with cameras in mind.
Although there is usually someone with more information in a disaster, the PIO is an important link in the chain of communication. "We know that we can't get our front line people - meaning the chief - out there to you at that time," Wes Hill said.
The media representatives said they know not to expect the chief to drop everything to talk to the media.
"We know that it's a very busy time," Belmondo said. "We don't want to hang around."
"I don't want to get in the way," Holland said. "I don't want to make anything worse."
But it's their job to collect information.
If there is a PIO at the scene, he or she can be interviewed, answer questions, or deliver information, allowing the chief to deal with the emergency.
Belmondo said a PIO doesn't have to be perfect the first time. The media personnel are not looking to embarrass the PIO - "we're not looking for a 'gotcha' moment" - they are interested in receiving and passing along accurate information.
"We don't want to burn bridges with you," Ferry said.
The PIOs represented organizations including Warren, Forest, Erie, Crawford, and Clarion counties and townships in those counties, Warren County School District, Crawford County Fair, UPMC Hamot and UPMC Horizon, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the U.S. Forest Service.
"We're reaching out to all the levels of emergency response to work with media more efficiently and effectively," Hill said.
"The diversity of this group has made this a very good class," Melcer said. "I think it went really well. We had all the different types of media there."
"Warren's been a great host," he said.
Other than the panel, participants in the class had to write press releases, develop talking points, and go through a press conference on camera to be critiqued by the instructors. Among the information delivered by the instructors was how to set up a media briefing area and the privacy aspects of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).