I just returned from a whirlwind trip to San Francisco and Atlanta, speaking to and working with Public Information Officers (PIO) from federal agencies to small town fire departments. There is widespread recognition among many (but not nearly all) communicators of the tremendous change in public information management caused by increased use of social media and particularly Twitter. I am surprised and encouraged by the number of agencies who are already adopting and using Twitter and other forms of social media. But there is one universal obstacle and problem: the chiefs, the heads of agencies, the old guys at the top (hey, I’m an old guy so I can say that).
For the most part they continue to live in a world where they see the job of the PIO as sending out a press release to local media and answering a few questions. If it is a big enough event, the PIOs job is to organize a press conference so the head of the agency can stand on the courthouse steps and tell the world that he/she is in complete control.
While many in public information management are still struggling with how to adapt to the rapid changes themselves, they are quite honestly completely lost when it comes to bringing their superiors into this brave new world of light speed public information.
I don’t know how to solve it for them. I know people like me have to be speaking to the heads of agencies directly rather than expecting the PIOs to carry the message. But since we don’t often get invited to speak to the heads of agencies, PIOs and public affairs managers have to carry the water on this.
Here are key message points:
– Communicate fast or what you say won’t matter.
– The press release is dead and gone forever.
– Short, continuous bursts of information have replaced the well-crafted press release as the most vital form of public information.
– The website may be a far more important source of information than the press conference.
– Direct communication with key audiences is rapidly replacing messages sent through media “partners”
– The public will know about an event through Twitter and through the media (who use Twitter as a scanner) perhaps faster than the agency heads themselves
– Rumor management is becoming perhaps the primary job of the PIO and Joint Information Center rather than the initial or primary source of information
– Incident commanders, agency heads, elected officials who have their heads in the sand will probably only wake up after they have been through a major event in which they discover all these important points themselves.
Here’s my plea: take this list into your supervisor, your agency head, your incident commander and sit down right now and talk with him or her about this list. See if they agree or disagree. If they disagree, hash it out. If they agree, make sure you are putting the plans and steps in place to meet their expectations for speed from you.