Are PIOs confusing expectations with requirements?
In the field of public information, we strive to be transparent, but knowing when not to release information is critical
By Sergeant Darren Wright
Most of us have gone to Costco or other stores where they have the samples at the end of the aisles, or at least they did pre-COVID! As you shop, you can almost have a smorgasbord dinner. We grow to expect the samples to be there. Is Costco required to provide those samples? Of course not, but we feel ripped off when they are not there. Costco is required to provide a safe, clean store to shop in, the company is not required to feed you.
In the field of communications and public relations, we strive to be transparent and provide as much information as we can. Going the extra mile and providing information helps to build the relationships between your organization and the media partners we work with. But this extra information is the Costco samples, nice to have, but just because we always have done it in the past, doesn’t mean we have to do it today.
Managing public information communications is like being a juggler, except you are juggling while running with chainsaws, flaming torches and a bottle of nitroglycerin. For an experienced juggler, this is not a problem. They have practiced and trained for juggling dangerous items.
A person learning how to juggle drops the balls a lot when they first start. They pick the balls back up and try again. When they get better, they start to juggle bottles of milk. Occasionally they will drop a bottle too. When they do, the bottle breaks, and of course, you can’t cry over spilled milk. You also can’t just pick it up and start juggling again, you have to clean up the mess.
Training, practice and relationship building are ways to develop your juggling skills and reduce the amount of time spent cleaning up the spilled milk, or worse, the fires and explosions that can occur from dropping the dangerous pieces. Develop plans to respond to a crisis situation before it happens so that the decisions on who needs to know can be made, and who will do the juggling for your organization.
Need to know vs. want to know
This leads to the battle between "need to know" and "want to know." PIOs, police executives and anyone who manages a crisis incident have dealt with high-ranking politicians, elected officials, or other dignitaries who wield their power to get privileged information about an incident. Do they really need to know?
For example, your agency is handling a large-scale incident where there is loss of life, a criminal investigation and possible terrorist connections. There is a large media presence, and you are doing a great job of juggling. The State Tiddlywinks Commission Director doesn’t need the details of your major incident. That is unless it is a major tiddlywinks fraud bust, which are significantly down thanks to the TWTF, the Tiddlywinks Task Force. If the Director barges into your command post demanding information because they are a statewide elected official, this is a want-to-know situation, not a need to know.
The expectation that he needs to know has been perpetuated due to his position, but the requirement to provide the information is akin to the Costco sample. If it is something you want to provide, that is your decision, but revealing sensitive information just because someone wants to know could cause problems with the investigation. If the Director releases the information in an effort at self-promotion, then you have lost control of the message.
Know where the law in your jurisdiction and your policy places the release of information. Our agency policy, in general, is that unless there is a legal reason to withhold the information, it will be released. Can you legally withhold it, or is it being withheld because it is uncomfortable or embarrassing? If you are withholding for the latter reason, it will not get less uncomfortable or less embarrassing.
Control the narrative
Remember, the media is like a bear. The bear needs to eat to survive. If you feed the bear, you control what they eat. If you do not feed the bear, they will forage for whatever food they can find. You may not like what they eat, and it could even be you!
I was told when I first became a PIO, “If you mess up, dress up and fess up.” If you feed the bear as mentioned above, you have at least some control over the message, or at least can lead the message in a direction more favorable to your agency and usually more accurate. There are often times that being proactive in getting the bad news out removes any scandal and reduces the appeal the story has to the media.
So, wouldn’t it be easier to stick with just what is required to be released and not provide any extra information? Yes, it would be easier, but don’t you love those Costco samples? That extra effort they go to makes you enjoy the experience you have in their business. So too does the extra information you provide to the media make the relationship with them better, but remember, it does not set a new requirement to always supply information.
About the author
Sergeant Darren Wright is the Headquarters Public Information Officer (PIO) for the Washington State Patrol (WSP). He has been with WSP for over 30 years, serving as a sergeant for over 5 years. He has served as a PIO, both in law enforcement and in the fire service where he has worked major wildfires and other large-scale incidents. He has a BA in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and will be graduating with an MA in Communications from SNHU in the spring of 2022. He is an honorably discharged veteran who served in the United States Marine Corps.