Arizona Pilots New PIO Course

Arizona Pilots New PIO Course

PIOs and Instructors working and learning at the FEMA PIO pilot courses

When a disaster hits or a governmental agency has some information to publicize, it is often up to a Public Information Officer (PIO) to write press releases, post information to social media, and stand in front of the television cameras to talk to the community.

A PIO is the lead communicator for an organization. They ensure correct information coming out of the office reaches both the media and the public. A PIO shares time-sensitive information directly with the community, and through local media and social media. A PIO also writes a variety of communications to share their agency’s messages.

PIOs, specifically those new to the profession, are oftentimes find it helpful to take a series of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trainings designed to prepare PIOs to respond in an emergency.

FEMA recently updated its Basic Public Information Officer, Public Information Officer Awareness and Joint Information Officer System/Center Planning for Public information Officers courses to ensure better training for today’s PIOs. The courses include basic concepts of the PIO function in an emergency management environment; oral and written communication skills; working with the media; establishing and operating a Joint Information System and Joint Information Center; as well as learning operational practices.

“The Emergency Management Institute (EMI) regularly updates courses to meet training needs including new knowledge and skills required by the audience,” EMI’s Training Specialist Course Manager Phil Politano said. “The revision of these Basic Public Information Officer courses is part of a complete review and enhancement of all six courses in EMI’s public information and external affairs portfolio. “

FEMA piloted the revised courses in different parts of the country. The Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) was the first agency to pilot the updated PIO courses.

“We are always eager to pilot new courses and have an extensive training program,” said Becky Scott, DEMA’s FEMA Training Coordinator. “With their comments and input, our PIO instructors and attendees/emergency response community help to shape new course curriculum, ensuring it is as effective as possible so our emergency responders can better serve our communities, as well as communities nationwide, during times of disaster.”

Three instructors, who were part of the focus group to make the changes to the courses, taught the pilot series in Arizona.

“Each course now flows seamlessly up to the next level with little repetition. I really believe the changes will be effective in bringing the role of PIO more in line with the planning and operations aspects of any incident,” Joe Farago, Master PIO Instructor said. “By adding the aspect of a written strategic communications plan to the course materials, it not only provides new tools, but also broadens an understanding that the PIO position is an integral part of any response and must be in sync with the overall incident planning.”

“I thought the courses were a major improvement over the previous edition. With the focus more heavily on simulation, it got the students to apply more of what they learned; hopefully, driving home the lessons and giving everyone the opportunity to try their hand at the skills,” said Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist for the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners. “The work we did together will be taught in all 50 states, helping to prepare public information officers in the event of a disaster. It’s my hope that the material helps make the difference in saving lives.”

DEMA’s Training Office saw an overwhelming number of PIOs register for the four-day event. “Attendees were selected in an effort to maximize the benefit of participant feedback from individuals of varied backgrounds and experience levels,” Scott said. “The participant feedback from this course will be extremely valuable in producing top-notch PIO course curriculum.”

Kim Crawford, Communications Manager for the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, had not taken any of the FEMA offered PIO courses. She signed up to improve her experience in dealing with tough situations.

“Last year, we had what for our office was a crisis situation. While we were successful in delivering our message, I knew there were things I needed to learn to be more effective should an event occur in the future,” Crawford said. “The instructors had a lot of knowledge steeped in their own experiences and it was impressive that they shared not only their successes, but also experiences they used to improve upon their own techniques. They also worked hard to give a map of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ with working scenarios to give us experience we’d be able to draw on later.”

Detective Tracie Kittelson with the Tempe Police Department is preparing to move into a PIO support role at the department and wanted to learn the basics of what a PIO does in a given situation.

“The instructors were informative and knowledgeable about the subject, and were able to present the information in a way that was understandable and relatable,” Kittelson said. “Each instructor was able to engage the class and created a comfortable learning environment.” 

Michael Reichling, Arizona All Hazards Incident Management Team PIO, signed up as someone who has taken and teaches the courses for DEMA. He thought the changes were effective and focused on best practices utilized in the management of information to the public.

“The materials contained in the new curriculums meets the challenges for today's public and media, including the importance of social media,” Reichling said. “As an active DEMA PIO instructor who deploys on incidents I wanted to have input on how the new course materials will be utilized on incidents and how support staffs can assist PIOs.”

The courses were reworked in part due to PIO requests, and so the input of attendees will weigh heavily. “Student reviews have indicated the revisions seem to match training needs and are in line with the requirements of today’s public information officer. New content on strategic communications and social media blend well with standard practices such as writing and interview techniques,” Politano said.

“The students provided valuable input throughout, and became part of the process that will determine the finalized course materials. Based on what we heard both in writing and during the hot wash, the response to new materials was positive and enthusiastic,” Farago said. “Many of those taking part in these classes were not only accomplished PIOs, but instructors themselves with an extremely high level of experience. When people like that come up to you, shake your hand and tell you how much these changes were needed, and how much of an improvement it made, you know you’re onto something.”