Telling The(ir) Story

In my Winter issue article, I discussed training options, courses and credentialing to become a Public Information Officer (PIO). This quarter I want to discuss.  one of the biggest responsibilities of a PIO. It’s a responsibility that guides me through my daily duties as a PIO.

I take pride in this responsibility and I believe it’s a privilege to be able to do this. It really is one of the easiest parts of being a PIO. You’ll notice that the topic of this quarter’s article is written to reflect this responsibility. Its about telling THE story of your agency. It’s about telling THEIR story, the story of the dedicated men and women that make up your agency. By telling the(ir) story; you keep your community informed and engaged while also sharing the positive impact of the services that your agency provides to the community.

Telling THE Story

If you read my quarterly articles you’ve most likely picked up on my pattern. I probably sound like a broken record too. You’ve probably picked up on how important I think the position of Public Information Officer (PIO) really is. It’s a position that every agency should have assigned within their organization. Whether you’re a small volunteer, community department or a larger paid, municipal department, you need someone representing the agency with your customers. Yes, as I have also frequently mentioned, we have “customers” in the public safety world. So, what does “Telling THE Story” mean? It’s simple. Every day, through your agency’s social media, press releases, advisories, media interviews or your personal interaction within the community you share your agency’s story. This story includes everything you do. Calls for service, your stations, your equipment, your training, your agency’s community events, fire prevention tips, seasonal safety tips.

Telling THE story also involves sharing the informational posts and stories of other community agencies (your sister public safety agencies, your City/Town leadership, the water department, the solid waste services department, the traffic department, local parks and recreation – the list goes on). It really is of infinite possibilities. Before you know it, your customers will be coming to YOU to provide the story of the entire community. You will see your social media followers increase exponentially, as well as community interaction and engagement. All of which are positive with little downside. Sharing THE story helps during budget time, where your community has already digested the impact of your agency over the last year and are ready to support you with budget requests. Whatever you can provide in daily content is completely beneficial in your success as a PIO and as a public safety agency.

A good tip to remember: talk with your community, not to your community. Engage the community in dialogue and give them daily ways to interact with you. If they ask a question, answer it promptly. This is not always easy – but do your best. Their engagement will help you tell THE story. Most likely other customers have the same questions.

A second good tip to remember: Your customer lives in the world of is, not the world of should. This means you need to be open and honest, maintain the dialogue and always be transparent and truthful. It’s OK to say you don’t know the answer to something but get back to them when you do have the answer. Telling THE story is easier than you think. Each day is different and between calls for service and community events you can easily provide daily content. You cannot do it alone and you will need the support of your agency. It could be as simple as details and photos from a call for service, a community event, a community visit, etc. Empower your agency to provide you with details and to help you tell THE story.

As I write this article, during the first week of March, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is starting to take hold of the daily community PIO messaging. It’s early to tell, but something like this could dramatically affect how you tell THE story. You daily story could transition to the COVID-19 story. Topics to consider when telling this story. How is your agency preparing? What steps, if any at this point, will you take to prepare to respond to COVID-19? Also, part of telling THE COVID-19 story will be the sharing of medical experts, clinicians, and agencies directly charged with protecting us during situations like this — CDC, the World Health Organization, your County Health Department as well as your local and state emergency management teams. You will need to stay on top of their posts, advice and informational briefs and share that with your customers. This new hot topic is now part of the story you should be telling.

Telling THEIR Story

Lastly, telling THEIR story is telling the story of your members, THE public servants that make up your agency, the engine of your agency. This too is an easy story to tell. Share the stories and photos of their service (THEIR story). Show them in training, engaging the community and at work on calls. These selfless servants are the community’s biggest investment and showing them as they serve their community is a very positive approach and with little downside as well. It could be something like a member assisting a resident with carrying groceries, a member training to perfect their craft, a member giving a tour of the fire station and providing fire safety tips or a member volunteering their time to meet with and speak to the community. In this day and age; showing a public safety professional in a positive light is important and reassuring for our community. As mentioned in previous articles, good news travels fast — but bad news travels FASTER.

One day when someone searches for your agency using an internet search engine, all of these positive stories (THE stories and THEIR stories) will filter to the top, like créme. Have a great (and healthy) Spring and remember: Put the right information, into the right hands, at the right time — so they can make the right decisions and THEY — are our PIO customers.


Twitter: @huntersville_fd

Twitter: @BPSuthard

Twitter: @CarolinaBhood

Twitter: @CFD_Alarm


Bill Suthard is a Firefighter, EMT and Public Information Officer. He works part-time for the Huntersville Fire Department. Suthard works, full-time, for the Charlotte Fire Department where he is currently assigned as the Operations Manager for their Communications Division. He directly manages the five Shift Supervisors and 36 other members of the Division. Suthard manages the Division’s public information, social media accounts. He is an NCEM (NC-SERT) all-hazards type I PIO / COML and is a member of and the PIO for the annual Carolina Brotherhood Ride (#CBH19). He is also an instructor for the Federal Emergency Communications Division (ECD), a portion of the Department of Homeland Security. Each year, in October, he also serves as the PIO for the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial service in Emmitsburg Maryland which he lists as one of his greatest accomplishments.

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