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Maximizing the role of the public information officer in crisis communication

Strategies for effective information dissemination and maintaining public trust during major incidents

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In the event of a major incident, most agencies have established protocols for notifying supervisors or command staff, tailored to the incident’s severity. Chiefs generally prefer to avoid surprises. If a chief is approached by a citizen, or worse, a mayor or council member, and is unaware of the incident, it can create an impression of being disconnected and uninformed about community events.

Is your Public Information Officer (PIO) included in the notification list? It’s not uncommon for a PIO to receive calls from media outlets inquiring about a major ongoing or past incident. For a PIO, it can be quite disconcerting to first learn about a significant event through a media inquiry rather than through internal channels.

Ensuring PIO inclusion in incident notification protocols

The PIO serves as a vital safeguard for the agency and personnel at a scene. To ensure this protection, it’s essential to inform them promptly about ongoing developments. This enables the PIO to respond proactively, arriving on scene ahead of the media. Failure to keep the PIO informed can turn this safety measure into a liability, as misinformation may spread. Misinformation, rumors, or lack of information can change the whole perception of an incident. Once that initial perception is created, it can be nearly impossible to change it, especially if it is negative.

The role of a PIO inherently requires access to information, as indicated by the title. If your agency utilizes an automatic notification system or a call list, the PIO must be included, preferably at a high-priority level. Responsiveness to calls is a key aspect of the PIO’s role. There is an expectation that the PIO will answer when contacted. If the perception arises that calls are often unanswered, there may be a decrease in future communication attempts from those seeking information.

Two-tier notification system

I’ve established a two-tier notification system with the officers and sergeants I collaborate with. For minor issues or inquiries that don’t require immediate attention, especially late at night, I’ve advised them to text me. A text won’t disturb my sleep, but if I’m awake, I’ll promptly respond. If I reply, they’re welcome to ask their question. If I don’t, it means I’m asleep, and there’s no issue. For urgent, in-progress incidents or situations needing immediate response, I’ve instructed them to call my cell phone. My phone’s ringtone is loud enough to wake me (I can assure you of that), and I’ll manage the situation accordingly, whether over the phone or by going to the scene if necessary.

This system provides a sense of comfort and encourages team members to always reach out when they need assistance. It reassures them that they can safely contact me for help, even for non-critical incidents. I make it clear that I welcome their calls — after all, it’s part of my role. While their consideration of not wanting to disturb me is appreciated, I emphasize the importance of communication. Establishing this relationship and understanding in advance is crucial. In departments with more than one PIO, it’s important to ensure that everyone knows how to contact the on-call PIO to maintain this level of accessibility and responsiveness.

Most individuals prefer to stay ahead of the curve, particularly in high-stress or high-liability situations, and PIOs are no exception. Early involvement of PIOs allows them to be thoroughly briefed and prepared with messaging and communication strategies. This proactive approach enables the timely release of accurate information, effectively countering the spread of rumors that often arise from an information vacuum. Preempting misinformation is always the preferable course of action.

Balancing transparency with operational security in crisis situations

Navigating the delicate balance between transparency and protecting an ongoing investigation is a key challenge. Having the PIO involved from the outset equips them to better determine what information should be released and when. This is particularly crucial when disseminating descriptions of suspects, witnesses, or involved vehicles to the public. Prompt communication can capitalize on fresh information in the minds of potential informants.

Typically, during significant incidents, a PIO might not be the first thought for officers on the scene. However, regular collaboration and communication with department members can ensure that involving the PIO becomes a more instinctive part of their response, allowing the PIO to fulfill their critical role effectively.

Fostering proactive communication and community engagement

The PIO acts as a vital link between the department and the public. Communities are eager for information about ongoing situations and may resort to unverified or inaccurate sources if official information is not forthcoming. By positioning the PIO as the primary source of information, the department can ensure that the public receives accurate, timely, and truthful updates. In essence, keeping the PIO in the loop facilitates effective public communication and safeguards the department’s credibility and public trust.

Darren Wright is the public information officer for the Oro Valley Police Department in Arizona. He retired from the Washington State Patrol as a sergeant after serving 31 years. His final assignment was the headquarters public information officer (PIO), where he handled major media inquiries and statewide impact incidents and oversaw the district PIO program. He has a bachelor’s degree in communication and a master’s degree in communications with a public relations concentration from Southern New Hampshire University. He is an honorably discharged veteran from the United States Marine Corps.