The role of the emergency management systems is to bring calm to chaos. The role of the public information officer (PIO) is to disseminate information that is credible, accurate, and reliable. It is a critical component of the initial response to meet the informational needs of residents – trusted, credible information aids in bringing calm.
The internet has created new distribution systems for information that include subscription services, e-mail lists, blogs, and social media. All these sources of media have the ability to manipulate the community’s perception of what is and is not important.
Communication systems are the essential tool to provide the public an understanding of what is occurring and how to react to a threat. Today’s PIOs must work with several media systems to ensure that the public is kept informed. It is now necessary for agencies to be able to provide information across multiple platforms.
Some communications researchers believe that people interact with media sources to create their own meanings out of the images and messages that they receive. The internet and other modern technologies allow individuals to play a more active role in determining the news and information they receive. In some instances, individuals subscribe to sources and control the news they see, hear, or read. In other cases, technology observes the readers’ patterns of interests to deliver aggregated news of interest to the reader based on an algorithm.
Defining Mass Media in the 21st Century
Popular news media is a form of mass media designed to distribute news and information to the mass population. Historically, news media has included print media such as newspapers and magazines. It also includes broadcast media such as radio and television.
In today’s world, it is content that drives media. Securing content that is of interest to targeted readers allows the sale of advertising and sponsorship of content. However, popular media is no longer the sole source for information. An overwhelming majority of the population now receive news through online sources, making today’s mass media very different than even 10 years ago. The internet is full of content, which also can steer the community’s perceptions, attitudes, and sense of what is and is not important.
Media in the 21st century includes more options than just print or broadcast media to provide news to individuals. Individuals increasingly receive news from sources that have other content that interest them. In addition to traditional sources, news content is now available via the internet, blogs, social media, and even internal agency channels. All of it now is pushed to the receivers via cellphone or tablet.
According to the Pew Research Center, more Americans get their news from social media than print news. Television remains the most consumed news but is rapidly losing ground to online sources. Also, according to Pew Research, adults of all ages are increasingly receiving news via mobile devices. As a result, news today is being disseminated and received quicker and consumers are far more mobile than in previous years.
The Role of Media in Disaster Management
It is necessary for emergency management agencies to quickly and effectively communicate strategies and inform the public during times of crisis. In order to effectively manage the dissemination of information, emergency managers must acknowledge the value of mass media – including blogs, local news media, and social media sources – as partners in informing the public. These sources strategically are an important part of providing guidance on preparedness, creating risk-reduction strategies, and securing the reputation of an emergency management organization.
The role of the news media is to secure the content necessary to tell a story that is relevant to the audience. The role of a public information organization is to provide factual verified information. Therefore, it is beneficial for emergency management agencies to use news media as a force multiplier to aid in disseminating needed information to the community.
Reporters are neither a friend nor an enemy. Their job is to tell the story. Reporters are expected to behave in a manner that is professional and balanced in their reporting. However, it is the PIO’s role to engage and inform reporters of validated information to tell the story for emergency management. Simply put, PIOs need to work to control the narrative and tell the story of emergency management.
To ensure understanding and to build trust, responses to questions from the public, including news media, should never be casual or cavalier. It is important for agency representatives to follow through in a timely manner if they tell a reporter that they will get the requested information back to them.
Telling the Story
Generally speaking, stories have common elements to form the storyline. Know what information will be needed and be prepared to gather validated information to support your statements. Like all good stories, the basic formula for most news stories has a victim, a rescuer, and a villain. A good emergency manager or public information officer needs to keep the storyline in mind when telling their story to the media.
To develop trust and credibility, emergency management and public safety agencies need to build relationships with news media before an incident. They should conduct workshops with local media and the community to inform them of emergency management programs, planning efforts, and mitigation activities.
When information is scarce, community emotions can run high. Gossip and speculation may interfere with credibility and may lead to fear, anxiety, and a loss of trust in the agencies attempting to respond and aid those in need. It is critical to stay on message, be first to report, be accurate, and be credible. Leading the discussion with empathy and openness also builds trust and confidence.
When planning to communicate with the public and the news media, PIOs should ask themselves the following questions:
- What information is crucial to convey in initial messages in order to prompt appropriate public responses after a crisis?
- What messages need to be delivered prior to, during, and after an incident?
- What obstacles interfere with communications and how can they be minimized?
- What opportunities for effective communications exist and how can they be maximized?
- What questions can be anticipated from the public in these risk situations?
- What are the news media’s responsibilities and how can PIOs help reporters meet them?
The one phrase that may significantly impact an organization’s credibility is “No Comment.” Since this phrase denotes a potential lack of transparency and candor, it should almost never be used in time of crisis. When responding to questions that have no clear response, PIOs should offer to research the topic and provide information later.
Planning for Communications in Times of Emergency
In order to manage public information, the first step is to create an inventory of potential emergencies that can occur. Many governments have already completed a Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment as part of building their emergency planning strategies. At a minimum, the PIO should develop a strategy to address the most common questions as they relate to the top five most likely incidents based on probability of the incident and the potential for damage in the community. The PIO function should be included in all exercises.
A good emergency manager or PIO has a thorough understanding of what information is needed to motivate appropriate community action. The emergency management agency must then provide credible and accurate information as quickly as possible. The benchmarks of a solid public information effort include news reports that are: accurate, informative, timely, open, and empathetic.