Friday, February 10, 2012

The Public Information Officer in Search and Rescue

What is a Public Information Officer? A Public Information Officer (“PIO”) is a representative of an official organization.  This person serves as a central source of information for release by the department and responds to requests for information by the news media and the community.

In search and rescue operations, the PIO might be a representative of any number of organizations, including: 
1. The local law enforcement entity (frequently the county sheriff or state police); 
2. The local search and rescue organization; or,
3. The regional or state search and rescue organization. 

In any SAR incident, the PIO serves a number of important roles: 
1. Assisting news personnel in covering incidents; 
2. Assisting the news media on an oncall basis; 
3. Preparing and distributing news releases; 
4. Arranging for, and assisting at, news conferences; 
5. Coordinating and authorizing the release of information about victims and incidents; 
6. Assisting in crisis situations within the agency 
7. Coordinating the release of authorized information concerning agency operations 
8. Posting, monitoring and managing the use of Social Media outlets

As you can see from the list above, the primary purpose of the PIO is to provide a central source of information to the media.  At the same time, the PIO serves another equally important role of keeping others in positions of authority and leadership from having to deal with the media while performing their duties. 

It is the role of the PIO to answer the most common questions, those of “who, what, when, where, why, how, how come?”  The PIO then goes on to describe what the various agencies are doing about the situation. Because sharing information with the media can be a difficult job, SAR organizations should be certain to provide necessary and appropriate training for all individuals that might serve in the capacity of PIO. 

Why is a PIO Important? 
The public demands, and indeed deserves, to be made aware of the circumstances and events associated with a SAR incident.  This is best accomplished through the media, which has direct and often immediate access to the public. Furthermore, proper public information at a SAR incident will enable the SAR authority to provide preventive SAR education to the public. 

Over the years, some SAR organizations have tried to avoid dealing with the media.  Some have been known to say, “The media NEVER gets it right.”  In fact, by avoiding the media, a SAR entity can rest assured that the media will not get it right.  Only by dealing directly with the media, in all it's forms, can we assure that the story is as close to accurate as possible. 

Who Makes a Good PIO?
First and foremost, a PIO needs to be very knowledgeable in the field of SAR operations.  For this reason, PIO’s should be chosen from among the veterans of a SAR organization.  Some people are natural teachers, and the role of PIO is somewhat a teaching role.  Still, the best teachers are those who are very well trained in the topic. 

In addition to experience, a PIO needs to have the proper balance of humility and self-confidence.  When he media or public see an egocentric rescuer in front of the camera, then the focus becomes the PIO and his/her agency not the message. 

A good PIO has great respect for the media.  Power comes through knowledge – knowledge that is shared, not knowledge that is kept.  The more respect a PIO has for the media, the better s/he will be at communicating the important messages to them. 

When choosing a PIO, any organization should ask who it wants to be the spokesperson for the group.  often, the most well respected individuals in the organization will be good candidates for PIO.  This is because the respect those individuals have gained over time is most often based on the combination of their personality, knowledge and expertise. Purposefully choose your PIO.  Take your time, and choose someone who is polished, professional, humble, and knowledgeable. 

General Guidelines 
It is true that “bad news travels faster than good news.”  Since most SAR incidents involve some bad news for the victims, the media is often quick to respond to our calls. While a SAR team’s PIO should be prepared at any time to respond to media calls regarding an incident, an experienced PIO will know the moment a SAR call is dispatched whether it will attract media attention. 

There is no such thing as a “media circus.”  The media professionals are there to do their job, and it becomes the PIO’s responsibility/opportunity to help them do their job.  A PIO should maintain an attitude of helpfulness at all times.  His/her perspective should always be, “I’m here to help you, and to make sure I get you the information I have.” Some level of excitement and adrenaline should always be present, so the PIO maintains focus.  A lazy or disinterested PIO makes a bad PIO.

Your PIO should also not ignore social media. Frequently, social media streams like Twitter and Facebook are breaking stories well before more traditional media outlets can get on scene. In some cases traditional media organizations like CNN and their iReport site are even "crowdsourcing" news.  Because of the nature of social media, these tools can be used not only to get your message out, but also to see how you message is being understood by the public. As it is two way communication, it can also be used to gather information. 

Consider posting missing person information and mission updates to your team Facebook Page and Twitter feeds but only do so with the authorization of the agency having jurisdiction. Because this can be done "in the moment" and from mobile devices, this can keep the public updated outside of the traditional media cycle.    

We will go more into Social Media for Search and Rescue at the joint MRA / NASAR Conference in June and will follow up with a blog post. 

Stay Safe!

For more information on how to effectively work with the media, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations rescuer education program 

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 


  1. Love the site. Accessed from Wildfire PIO on Facebook. Well done! Wealth of info. Love the video.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.