Slow Year for PIO


CarolinaFireJournal - Bill Suthard
Bill Suthard
01/25/2021 -

Make no mistake – the year 2020 was a crazy, tough, chaotic year for many. It was a year that will go on record as one if not the most memorable years ever. A chaotic year full of contradictions, surprises and unusual events. 

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From the acquittal of President Donald Trump in an impeachment trial, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent changes to our daily lives, schools shut down as new words such as “Zoom” and “remote learning” are created, a spring and summer of civil unrest across the country, growing calls for defunding the police, a less than “normal” presidential race, a busy hurricane season, an even busier western wildfire season and a fall presidential election which left one candidate crying foul.

Slow PIO Year

This year was one of my slower years as a Public Information Officer (PIO). Not because incidents did not occur, quite the contrary. We remained busy with calls for service — full disclosure we did see a decrease in medical calls as we re-structured our responses to avoid COVID exposure. My year was slower due to a huge decrease in community events, as well as a marked decrease in media visits, engagements and interest.

In early April we suspended all public visits to the fire stations to reduce COVID exposures; not necessarily to protect us, but to protect the public from us. We also cancelled our spring community events, blood drives and the bi-monthly child safety seat inspections. Along with the loss of all of those events, comes all of the missed attempts at public education, fire safety awareness and our media exposure that goes along with it. We rely on media to get our messaging across to the residents of our area that are not users of social media. Additionally, and for dynamic, real time incidents that affect our residents, we rely on media to put the “icing on the cake” so to speak in getting timely, important information out to our key stakeholders — residents, other agencies, local businesses and our community leaders.

Media Had Their Hands Full in 2020

As mentioned, this year we saw a major decrease in media interest and coverage — especially for our human interest/community focused/safety awareness stories. We saw a 100 percent decline in print media support in 2020 after March. Print media is newspapers and periodicals. It completely went away, even though we included them on media releases. I can say that we were starting to see the support and interest come back at the beginning of December. During the year we definitely saw a decrease in media coverage for our major incidents — accidents, fires and rescues. I attribute this to many reasons for why this occurred; which I will outline for you.

In my opening, I mentioned that 2020 was a chaotic, contradiction of a year. So many negative stories filled our news, our social media timelines and our newspapers. At the beginning of the year, every day was led off and closed with news about the presidential impeachment, followed in March by the COVID pandemic. Important news mind you, but delivered in mainly a negative light — across multiple networks. Then positivity began to surface and our mainstream media began to celebrate first responders and our frontline healthcare workers and share positive stories about the battle against our new enemy – the pandemic. Then the tragedy occurred with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Everyone was dealt a serious blow with this new tragic event and the mainly negative stories that filled our timelines. Every night we learned about the Floyd tragedy, ensuing civil unrest across America, COVID and an ever-growing presidential campaign, which in itself was also negative.

The next phase involved civil unrest throughout the summer and in many cities across America. This unrest included demands for defunding law enforcement. In July came the west coast wildfire season — this year’s fires stretched across California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado burning over 8.1 million acres, destroying 13,877 buildings and killing 46 people. The Atlantic hurricane season didn’t help. The 2020 season was one of the busiest seasons on record and it started early, back in May. The 2020 season saw a total of 30 storms (a record high), 13 of which became actual hurricanes and six that became major hurricanes killing more that 409 people and causing over $41 billion in damages.

Our timelines were becoming very full by fall with daily negative news including COVID, civil unrest, western wildfires, hurricanes and the presidential campaign. By the time the evening news was over each night — there was barely any time for positive news and hope. But wait, there’s more. In November the presidential election was held, and as we know the results were contentious, which of course, led to more negative news. Couple that with the fact that COVID cases were on a dramatic rise leading into the holidays, and new restrictions were enacted by government leadership. The hits kept coming. It was becoming harder to include all the top (negative) stories in the 30-minute segments the media had to operate within.

Hope

I will be the first to admit that I understand why the negative stories abound and my article in no way is an effort to blame the media for the lack of positive coverage; but my article may be a shameless effort to draw attention to something that we need in our lives — the need for more HOPE. We need more community, and positivity. The year 2020 did not provide much hope for us, but we can change that. A PIO can change that, and this PIO really tried — all year.

In the spring of 2020, with the loss of our community events and the negative news in the world, I tried to foster good, supportive stories. I initially attempted through my local media contacts, but that didn’t pan out — the first time in years for me! I attributed this to the pandemic and the travel restrictions reporters faced, coupled with the restrictions on visitors at the fire stations. So, like I always do, I took to social media. I shared positive, community stories. Although we had some negative responses to a few of our posts (folks felt the firefighters should have had a mask on when a picture was taken, or should be standing further apart in the picture). Mind you, our members ride the same fire truck and spend 24-hour shifts together while sharing a locker room and a dormitory. They are as close, as close can be, they’re family. On a few occasions, when we shared a post in support of our local law enforcement partners, (Huntersville has a fantastic police department) it was met with negative, toxic responses. Many of our LEO supportive posts received negative feedback from folks — but not from members of our community. Fortunately, many of these toxic responses were flagged through social media and eventually removed.

We continued to work hard to focus on positive community interactions and made attempts to further positive discussions. As COVID became commonplace, our community rallied to support healthcare workers and first responders within our area. We asked our firefighters at our stations to report any positive community interaction to the PIO so that I could post it and thank the community. I’m happy to report that the firefighters stayed busy with this. As I’ve said previously in my other articles — we really serve an amazing community here in Huntersville. They are tireless supporters of their first responders and we are thankful for that!

Positive Messaging — Hope

So, what positive messaging did we target? Well, the correct answer is that I had to figure it out on the fly, and my very first challenge was the pandemic, and I had never dealt with a pandemic before. For this article, I will share how we handled the messaging related to COVID. I felt the first message we needed to address was that their fire department was on duty, prepared and would be there for anyone in the community that needed us. One of the first posts I shared was of a couple of our firefighters wearing their “Pandemic Gear.” I wanted the post to represent a clear and to-the-point informational, upbeat post to the community, poking fun at the gear while also making a statement that we were there and prepared. We just looked a little different.  

Later we got a little more serious as we experienced our first firefighter quarantines. We still wanted to remain upbeat and acknowledge the pandemic’s effect on our firefighters while also demonstrating our members’ dedication to the mission of the fire department and our community.

In our quarantined firefighter post we shared some COVID and community-related hashtags. Remembering that COVID-19 wasn’t a trending hashtag — but a pandemic, and a crisis affecting many people throughout the world. The purpose of the post was to show solidarity around a positive trend that was happening within the community — support for frontline healthcare workers and first responders — while instilling the “hope” we were eagerly looking for.

Regardless of what friends, family or even members of your agency may feel about the validity of the pandemic, we must make sure that we (our agency) stays out of the debate. Your agency’s social media accounts should not be a platform to challenge but a platform of support, preparedness and readiness. We let our community know that we were equipped to respond.

Our posts remained in line with the belief that this is a global health crisis and one that’ll affect hundreds of thousands to millions of people, some of them much more severely than others — and maybe those are within our community.

We also identified that all COVID-19 messaging that was released should be compassionate and understanding and that the pandemic isn’t simply an inconvenience or a disruption but something that affected us all. So, we focused on the positive and we celebrated and participated within the support shown by our community!

My PIO recommendation, consistently, from previous articles has been: build trust, build rapport, be accessible and NEVER avoid bad/negative news. Address it immediately and own it, counter with positivity. You will find the community and (hopefully) the media happy that you did.

Always remember that timely, accurate and actionable information to the public and the media is a primary responsibility of the PIO. That could mean having to acknowledge a negative event (or a negative year).  If you, as the PIO, release the unfortunate, negative information first, you’re transparent to your audience which is a very important reputation to have. It builds trust. Being first can be difficult, especially during the 24-hour news cycle, but you need to be timely in addressing bad/negative news. It makes you transparent. It’s what we should do. Our customers expect it. Negativity is not a weakness, but failing to directly address a weakness is. First responders are not weak individuals — don’t be weak. Your job is to represent the frontline heroes.  DO. YOUR. JOB.  BE. A. PIO.  

Bill Suthard is a Firefighter/EMT and Public Information Officer (PIO). He works part-time for the Huntersville Fire Department, a four-station, combination fire department covering 62 square miles in northern Mecklenburg County. The department, just north of Charlotte, includes two lakes (Lake Norman and Mountain Island Lake) and serves a population of just over 60,000 residents. Suthard works full-time for the Charlotte Fire Department where he is currently assigned as the Operations Manager for their Communications Division.Web: http://huntersvillefd.comTwitter: @huntersville_fdTwitter: @BPSuthardTwitter: @CarolinaBhoodTwitter: @CFD_AlarmFacebook: https://www.facebook.com/HuntersvilleFireDepartment
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