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November 27, 2011


Considerations for the Digital Public Information Officer (PIO)

by Christopher G. Poirier

The good folks at CrisisCommons and the entire #SMEM community constantly are discussion the values and challenges surrounding the use of social media by organizations to pass important emergency related information during a disaster.  For this discussion, I will be focusing on the role of social media from the context of keeping people informed.  Specifically, I was intrigued to write on this topic after reading a recent piece by Patrice Coultier entitled, “Of Emergency Warnings and Being Convincing.”  Patrice, as usual, has provided an interesting (..and international) look at the way emergency management organizations use tone and different styles of approach in delivering important emergency information to citizens.  This ultimately got me to thinking about the role of the Public Information Officer (PIO) and the integration of technology tools in assisting in providing information to the masses.

With social media now a more common piece of every day information flow around the globe and very much so here in the United States, I am left to consider its impact on the PIO’s day-to-day job.  As many are already aware, the PIO’s primary job is to act as the “official voice” of an organization and in this case we’ll assume the PIO to be a part of a governmental function.  Therefore, during an emergency this person is the individual, or team of individuals, who should be providing the public with information on an emergency as the official source.  (This is where Patrice’s article on approach, tone, and the like comes to play.)  However, I feel that more and more in today’s technology laden landscape the PIO in many jurisdictions have either entirely ignored the social media space, misused it, or are just starting to grasp it.  To this end, I think there are some key items that should be considered:

  1. Be the Official Source: This seems far to logical to be stated, but I feel a lot of jurisdictions have let this basic concept of PIO work go by the way side, simply because a new technology is at play.  Think of it this way:  The PIO’s job has not changed in the new social media landscape, it has simply been expanded.  PIOs should not be doing anything more, less, or different than before.  Social media is simply another tool in the tool box of a communications professional (the PIO) to use and reach his/her target audience.  To this end, the PIO should work in social media, as appropriate, to their communciations plan and work with social media outlets to obtain “verified” and/or “validated” accounts where possible.  This allows the PIO’s presence on the internet to be a confirmed, trusted, and official source for information.
  2. Open the Two-Way Street: For the longest time the job of a PIO was to push information.  With today’s technology PIOs can act as a two-way conduit for information to the public and information received by the public.  Opening up this two-way dialog during an emergency allows PIOs to get the important, validated information out, but also take in new information from the public.  This allows response organizations to better plan for operations, but also allows the PIO and the emergency management organization to validate issues and reissue confirmed statements to the public writ large.  Remember, this is a huge issue with social media: After a disaster many people will begin self-reporting information creating a cross section of accurate, embellished  and completely false information that many people will take as accurate unless someone steps in as the official source and validation point for information.  This is a function best owned by the PIO shop and is honestly the best place for growth right now in the SMEM world in my opinion.
  3. Be Honest: One item that used to be difficult for some PIO organizations was the ability to be 100% open and transparent during events.  This is an older model of only releasing 100% confirmed information while remaining silent on unresolved/unconfirmed issues.  To this end, social media has made it more possible for PIOs to obtain more information faster and get it back out faster and more widespread.  (Just as mentioned above, the two-lane street is open for business and can some times be a super highway.)  One of the greatest impacts of using social media is the ability to interact and be part of the situation.  Often times PIOs are seen as the one on TV that just pushes random information while being separated from the event.  Now, PIOs can be in the mix and engaging their public directly and one of the best ways to obtain trust and authority is to be honest in your transactions.  I think you will find that many people will provide more information and be more willing to follow instructions and guidance if they feel like they are directly involved.
  4. Recruit, Standardize, and Innovate: Let’s face it, PIOs have it pretty rough some times and much like their host organizations they are generally drastically understaffed when things start happening.  This is not lost on many of us, in fact there are many volunteer organizations out there that exist purely to fill the void during disasters, however it’s time we start looking at the problem in front of us and begin working on filling the gaps.  Social media use in disasters have resulted in a flood of information at the one time that many shops down’t have the personnel to sort through the noise and find the information that is most important.  To resolve this I am becoming a heavy supporter in the age of the “digital first responder.”  A phrase, that the Red Cross seems to get most credit for coining, that basically means volunteers that will help become the PIO’s filter during an emergency.  This cadre of volunteers can be brought together whether it be via existing Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers, Red Cross volunteers, or via standing up a specific volunteer group for this function.  Train these individuals in the processes of you organization, basic emergency management, and put them to work in front of a computer helping to organize information as it comes in.  This frees up the PIO, but also ensures that the public is heard and answers are provided.  (They help the two-way street from becoming one-way and a potential hazard to your communications.) This is the greatest area organizations can innovate and help standardize their social media engagement during emergencies.
So, this may be fairly basic list, but I think there are many things to consider here and hope to spark a conversation or two.  Everything from ensuring that PIOs and getting information out to the public aren’t being run over by the technology train that is social media, to not forgetting the basics of emergency communications.  The methods of delivery may change every day, but the basics of obtaining, validating, then pushing out accurate information to the public will remain the same through the end of time.  Being able to stay on task and ensuring the public gets the information they need, when they need it, and in a format they understand is key.  Take some time and look at your organization and how you handle information flow.  You may find your process needs tweaking, not the tools.  (I recently wrote on this topic as well: Social Tools Do Not A Process Make)  With a solid communications and citizen engagement plan in place, social media and other tools should simply fall into place and allow organizations to innovate as they see fit to best assist a public in need during a disaster.
UPDATE: Just located another blog on this topic from another influential  #SMEM evangelist Kim Stephens.  Check out here article and blog here: idisaster 2.0
10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for the shout out …. the key for PIOs is to remember that social media are just tools and not a strategy. However, they are tools that are fast becoming the most powerful part of the PIO’s arsenal in keeping people informed and in ensuring that their organizations remain trusted sources of info.

  2. Couldn’t agree more with that statement. They are great tools and a great way to engage citizens. (Really open up those two-way communications.) But, it is also a beast that if untamed can cause quite a bit of chaos for folks. Thanks for your comments, as always! -CGP

  3. Dec 1 2011

    Great article. Currently PIER is the only web/email/sms communication management platform that automates the receipt and response to Inquiries (that “Two-Way Street” you mentioned). On December 12th at 8PM that two-way capability will expand to include Facebook and Twitter. We just started training webinars for our current customers and they are flipping out! This will help bring situational awareness through Social Media to a whole new level in way that is easily managed, even when it involves large numbers of stakeholders. PIER will be a great relief to those overworked PIOs during peace…and crisis. Sorry, there’s nothing on our website about this yet. If you want a sneak peek, let me know. – Phil

  4. I am curious what you are up to. Especially the “automated” part. No matter how much people want to “automate” emergency management this is a practice that is highly impractical if our job is to ensure accuracy and authenticity of information. The core job is to ensure accurate information is making it back to the public who are asking the questions and looking for answers. So, this obviously leaves me with a few important questions:

    1.) Does the system have an “approval system” prior to providing automated two-way responses?

    2.) How does the system know what “type” of information is coming in via social media channels? (e.g., situational awareness, questions, photos, video, etc.)

    3.) Does it have any type of decision making “intelligence” behind it? (i.e., does the system have automatic rules for certain situations and how are those set?)

    In the context of this article, I’m not talking about use of direct messaging systems via email/sms. I am purely focused on true social media platforms and direct citizen engagement. The largest problem with this subset is that it truly requires “eyes on” prior to release if we are going to maintain accurate and timely information flow to the public during emergencies. Hence, my recommendation of trained volunteers to monitor social media, collect, validate, and transmit information.

    My follow on question for you is this: How is your system different than any of the free social media aggregators already available? (e.g., Hootsuite, TweetDeck, Streamy, FriendFeed, Flock, etc) These tools are available to people for free and allows for searchable content across multiple social media networks and some even allow for targeted distribution back out. The only thing lacking is the aforementioned human component. (Volunteers) For example, I use a Google Chrome extension for Google+ (SGPlus) that allows me to post to Google+, Twitter, Facebook, and linkedin with one click. One message, multiple networks. So, here’s your chance: Where’s the value add of your “product?”

  5. Dec 2 2011

    Good questions. What PIER does is automate the process of sending and receiving information and the process of responding, but the PIO and the communication team still has to create and approve the information going out.
    1) Yes. Every document goes through the process of creation and approval and PIER can handle as many draft levels as possible. You can have any number of people creating as many different types of Documents (all within PIER) as you need and have a single person approve all, different people approve different categories, or have a central command group approving all communications.

    2) For this I have to explain the nature of PIER Gateways. A Gateway is used to receive Inquiries direct from the public via email, SMS, Web Form, Twitter, and Facebook. These inquiries come into PIER and are either connected with an existing Contact (person) record or to a new one created by PIER for that person. Why? So at any given time you can see all the Inquiries received and all direct Distributions (email, SMS, TW/FB message) and replies were made to each Contact. Next, PIER applies a category. When coming in by web form the inquirer has already self identified the category from a drop-down menu and each email and SMS address is pre-categorized. The inquirer uses the appropriate email or SMS address according to the nature of their inquiry. For Twitter PIER reads the hashtag to determine the category. Facebook is more of a challenge because there is no hashtag system in use for adding metadata, but we will be working on that. For now, Facebook inquiries come in as one pre-selected category.

    The next thing PIER does is notify the appropriate communicator(s) of the inquiry in the form of an email and an internal PIER User message within PIER. Because you’ve planned well for crisis, your communication team members use the drop-down menu to choose from all the existing pre-approved Answers (based by the way on the FAQ you are constantly building out on your website throughout the crisis). The Answer is directed back to the inquirer through the either the channel they designate, or back through the original channel. For Facebook that response is posted underneath the original wall post and for Twitter it’s an @mention. Those answers normally include a link to the FAQ in anticipation of possible follow-up questions (used very effectively during the Gulf Oil Spill – PIER was used manage and deliver all public communications by the JIC during that crisis).

    How long does all this take? Everything up through the notification to the communicator of the inquiry takes a few seconds and when up to plane, the whole process should take no more than 1-2 minutes from inquiry to response. This was well tested during Katrina and the Gulf Oil Spill.

    3) PIER relies completely on the communicators, but acts as a communication force multiplier. A small team can handle two-way communication with a large number of individuals through multiple communication channels. Our digital internet culture has come to expect – fast, direct and frequent communication in a way that is most convenient to them. Twitter and Facebook is a very natural addition to PIER and adds an even higher level of cultural relevance to crisis communications. While Social Media channels are quickly becoming important channels, a multi channel approach is the living reality. Any one channel can be interrupted ………or stretched to over capacity.

    (missing: image of Twitter Over Capacity message)

    How is PIER different from Hootsuite and the other free consolidators? Where’s the value-add for PIER? Good questions.

    PIER is never over capacity and always available due to hardware and internet access redundancy. With PIER you create, vet, publish and send out one Document to your website, Facebook and Twitter and send via email, SMS and text-to-voice all with a few mouse clicks with no additional customization for each channel. As your audience responds back to you, you can respond very quickly while PIER documents everything automatically. One person using PIER can do the work of a team of people needed to use ala carte solutions. Which is the least cost option?

    We’re starting with Facebook and Twitter and will evaluate LinkedIn, Google+, and other channels as our customers express the need. Right now, most of our customers are just struggling to get a good handle on Twitter and Facebook.

    Great blog. Keep up the good work. I’m a subscriber now and following on Twitter. Cheers!

  6. Thank you Phil, that was very matter of fact and not cutting around the edges (I like that.)

    I am probably going to miss your web demo, will you be having more and/or recording it? I’d like to consider doing a piece on capabilities, etc.

    For journalistic and ethical reasons, I may do a series on options just to show whats out there, options, but would like screen shots or short “action” vids if you have them.

  7. Dec 2 2011

    You’re welcome Christopher. I’m actually working on a 3 min overview of the Social Media integration as well as a longer version with all the details. They are really for customer training purposes but will be available to everyone. The 3 min should be completed and posted mid next week and the long version on December 12th, the day we release 7.0.

    If you ever get into the use of GIS for Emergency Management, that’s a part of this release as well. Pretty amazing stuff. Those vids will be posted the same time as the Social Media ones.

    I”ll send you links when they are posted. Let me know if they don’t provide what you need.


  8. Thanks, good stuff!

    I used to work with company’s that built incident management platforms (webeoc and eteam). So I am always interested to see what’s out there and can potentially be used to bridge information gaps.

  9. Maritza Ramirez
    Sep 16 2012

    Hi Christopher,

    When you say that PIOs can act as a two way conduct for information to the public… are we assuming that they are using predefined communications channels with the public. That is, specific facebook pages or twitter feeds. Do you know of any strategies that have been used in the past to collect information from citizens that are posting information in unpredictable places (random facebook pages and twitter feeds).

    Hi Phil,

    Does your system handle this type of situation?

  10. Oct 4 2012

    Rather than a two-way street, social media had changed the PIOs job from a lecturer to a party host; one way communication directed towards many vs. multiple egagements with each participant. The core responsibilities, delivering emergency information, will remain the same and our messaging should be uniform across all platforms in regards such information. However, when there is time, the different sites offer chances to open the doors to our agencies like never before and engage the people we serve.

    We’ve successfully been able to engage thousands during emergency situations; a prime example would be last spring’s ‘Night of a Hundred Tornadoes’. As the storm system moved across the United States, every one in my state saw the damage reports, heard the interviews- we knew it was headed our way. Calls were coming in, people were asking a lot of questions on social media, so we decided to join with a local CBS news anchor on Ustream, which also lets people chat and send instant messages. We were able to relay information from our response agency sources, the anchor was giving updates from the stations photons that were sent out… Nearly a thousand people joined us. They asked questions about the storm, they posted their own updates about what was happening in their neighborhoods. You had a state agency, member of the media and hundreds of citizens all contributing to the flow of information until 6am… And all benefitting from it. We were able to comfort a lot of scared people by providing a forum while at the same time everyone was getting the information they needed to make informed decisions that Friday night.

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