Webinar presenters Philip Smith, Steven Smith, and Katie Nelson answered a number of your questions after their presentation, A PIO Reflection Panel: Experiences, Tips and Lessons Learned. Here are just a few of their responses.
Audience Question: Why are so many PIO trainings still so heavily focused on face-to-face interviews at the barrier tape when social media has become so important for public safety communications?
Katie Nelson: I’ll jump on that one to start, and I will say, that’s primarily because reporters still desperately want soundbites in real-time. Journalism lacks two things right now, time and resources, so when they’re going out to your scene, they want something. And that can be B-roll and that could also be a soundbite. So those skills are important to have, and that connection with the journalist is helpful and beneficial to you both in the short and long term. You get your voice in the story, no matter what, and you’ve made yourself available, so going forward. They’re more inclined to give you some leeway if you say, well, you know, 2 or 3 instances down the road, “I can’t make it out there right now.” But I will say, for agencies where they may not be centrally located to a major market, something that I have seen several agencies do is they have filmed as if they were doing a press conference and posted that online and TV stations have just kind of plucked clips or little sections of those videos and put them into their news reports as if they were there. So, that is an option available to you. I will say we have trained our media to not come to scenes if there’s nothing more that we can provide or if they know that you know a soundbite is going to be a complete regurgitation of what I had sent out in a Tweet. That being said, we’re not an incredibly busy market all things considered in the Mountain View area. We’ve got San Jose to our South, and they are a hot mess a lot of times. And that’s fine, they know they’re the 10th largest city in the country. Of course, people are going to be more interested in what happens down there. But Phil, I don’t know about you guys, with Evansville, and its proximity to Indianapolis. And Steve, you’re in the capital of New York. So, I know there are TV news stations there. So, do you guys want to jump in on that at all?
Steven A. Smith Jr.: So, we’re the third largest city in the state of Indiana. And so up to the top. At the very top of the state at Fort Wayne in the very middle of the state, you got Indianapolis in itself. The state, you have us. And so, if there’s anything that goes on top of Indi, it’s going to be our SWAT team or bomb unit that deals with it, and that goes back to the relationship building that I said. I get it that sometimes when people want to come on the scene. They want to face to face and say, well, I’ll just put the information out. I think Katie hit the nail on the head. They do still want soundbites. They did send somebody out there. They did use their company gas money to get out there so that they want a return on their buyback, you know, on their buy. So, it also helps in the way of building relationships because when the camera cuts off, you may have a personal conversation in connection with that reporter that like, “Hey, I don’t want to air, I’ll let you know what’s going on. I don’t want this in the air”, and it builds trust. And I think it pays back dividends.
Philip Smith: Yeah, so we have several TV outlets here. It depends on what the situation is, and where we all come in, but I think it is beneficial. Because at many of our scenes, they’re going to walk around the street and interview somebody who is probably going to be somebody from the community who is their “TV Gold”. And there are many incidents where I want my face on air even if it is just a brief soundbite to have our side of the story on there. The other thing too is kind of think about what we’re doing right now. We’re doing a webinar; Zoom has been great in many instances too where we can get them soundbite. Not necessarily be at the scene, and we’ve done that plenty of ——– as well. The one thing I would add on to is that if you are going to do a briefing like an actual gaggle at a scene. Have somebody on your team or on your agency record that thing in its entirety and post that on your YouTube page. That goes for any press conference, too. Because that way, things can get lost. They can see it in the entirety of news conference on your YouTube page, and outlets that aren’t able to make it to the ——— will be able to pull it from your social media or from your YouTube page so they have your voice on the story as well.
Audience Question: Just to kind of add some detail here: How large are your teams? Additionally, how many additional officers do you have who you can tag or leverage to pitch in and help when you need extra hands?
Steven A. Smith Jr.: So, we’re about a city of like 200,340 personnel in the police and I’m the only PIO. At one point, the deputy chief would serve as my backup in the event that I want to take a vacation. But what we’ve really done here, especially with social media, is leverage some of our personnel to provide content. So, we can get some of the good stories out there. When it comes down to a crisis situation, and I did my thesis when I got my master’s at Crisis Communications Plan, was really finding the people within your agency, that can help or in a non-sworn capacity. Because let’s face it, if we have a major, major incident, the head of detectives who may be a great interview and create on camera, and it created social media, he’s going to be too busy. So, trying to find people within your agency, who can monitor social media during a crisis, and help maybe even just take immediate calls, monitor your Twitter, send your tweets out, so you’re spilling this information. So, we’ve done a little bit of that here. But for the most part, the team is Steve Smith right now, until we can hire somebody else.
Philip Smith: But we have a two-men unit, which is ironically led by two women currently, and myself as a former PIO, and we have another sergeant, it’s in another division right now, who’s the prior PIO. So, he serves as a backup whenever they’re not there. So, between us, we always said we have at least four people that are experienced with press releases on camera, that can handle it. And we also have the chiefs bought in on it. So, we may distribute Facebook duties are starting to him. So, it’s typically like a five-man team, honestly. And the Chief’s administrative assistant is a graphic designer. So, we bring her into so we kind of piecemeal it, but technically as two people in the office.
Katie Nelson: I am a one-woman band. It’s incredible what small teams can do. That being said, they can also get overwhelmed very easily. So, having backups is very important. Steve is up at all hours. I am not even kidding. I also have collateral duties. I am on the threat assessment team. I’m on the peer support team, I help with investigations. And I think that’s everything, but long story short. Your PIO can do a lot, but don’t expect them to operate at that level either. It’s very rare that you see large teams in small or medium-sized departments, The only places I know of where there are several team members or large teams are in major cities.
Audience Question: How long do you think the typical PIO lasts in their role before they burn out? You’ve just talked a lot about the hours you all keep and the crazy duties you do, what’s the turnover like? What’s the life expectancy like for that role?
Steven A. Smith Jr.: I’ve been doing it for 10 years. You know, I’m probably a little crazy, but I do love it. I would, admittedly, I’m getting tired. I also only have about 15 months left, and I’m eligible for retirement. So, let’s see what the next chapter is. But I do believe that being the PIO is the best job in a department because you do get to tell the stories of your agency, and you serve as the face of your agency, but admittedly, it makes you very marketable for what might be next too. So, I’m looking forward to taking these skills that I’ve learned over the last 10 years and translating them into something else, hopefully in the private sector.
Philip Smith: I lasted four years and that role in the only reason I left is because I got promoted. So, I got promoted out of that role, but I would assume the life expectancy was probably about 1 to 2 years if they have sworn personnel that is moved in there because they’re a good talker. That’s kind of what we deal with all enforcement, “You know what, he’s good at talking to people, let’s let him be the PIO” and they’re really just a street cop through and through and so they get burnt out on it fairly quickly. They like, I can’t wait to get out of this. This is what actually happened to our last PIO, he was really good at it, but the moment he had an opportunity to escape out, three to four years he was out.
Katie Nelson: I have been in my role for seven years in December. And I echo what Steve said, this is the best job I will ever have. I love, I love what I do, and I love the experiences that I get from this. I think it’s funny that when I look back on my life, and I think of all these other jobs that I wanted to do, it always centered back into law enforcement. And I will never forget. The first time I went on a ride-along, I never thought I wanted to be in law enforcement. It was, I should say, it wasn’t a top-of-mind thing for me. I loved to write. That’s what I’ve always loved to do since I was a kid. And I went on my first ride along at 22 and remember coming home and calling my parents after like a grave shift, I went in the middle of the night and I call them at —-. And I was like, ”Oh, my gosh, I want to be a cop,” and my mother told me in no uncertain terms, “Absolutely not.” And so, it took me a couple of years. But inevitably, I circled my way back in the best way that I could to be in this role, and I remember from day one until now, I have always felt like I went home and came to where I was supposed to be. That doesn’t mean I don’t have imposter syndrome. It’s taken years to get comfortable in the position. And I’m still not comfortable, but it’s a joy to be where I am and with the people that I work with. And I can’t stress it enough. If you can become a PIO, you’re going to have the best day of your life every day of your life.
Audience Question: So, what is the role of internal communications for you? We’ve talked a lot about external communications for the last hour. What’s the role of internal comms for you? Are you involved in developing internal comms? What do you do?
Katie Nelson: Guys, I’m going to tackle that one first, just because I’m starting to talk about this with presentations, and I can’t stress enough how much internal communications matter. Our chief had a summit last year, and one of the four themes that came out of that was how poor our internal communications can be. We talk so much about yes, to tackling the external side of things and maintaining transparency with the public. We have to be that same way, if not more so with our people. It is so important that they know what’s going on and that they don’t find out through other sources other than you. We have stumbled quite a bit along the way, and as a result, we have seen morale issues. But what we have done to begin to rectify that is as the PIO, I serve on this internal comms working team to directly address the concerns of the people, and some of the feedback that they had provided has been incorporated. It’s not a hard left, it’s like, send out a press release to the department before you post it publicly, you’re not doing anything by blowing the cover on a story or anything like that. You give them time to read it for 5, 10, 15 minutes, and then you posted externally, it’ll be in their inbox if they so choose. They are given a little bit of time to see what’s going on, and then we have developed an internal newsletter so that every other week, one was sent out today. It’s called the Tone alert. They get updates on all the different units, and what’s going on. Good work by our cops, good work by our professional staff, our dispatchers, welcoming new people. Departments as familial as we all are, and we can be very scattered. And so, really, having kind of this homing beacon where everybody can go to get information is really important and your PIO is going to be pivotal in that because they can help act and disseminate that information quickly. That’s because that’s what they do.
Steven A. Smith Jr.: Yeah, and I agree, my father was on the job and one thing, he always used to say, was, telephone, telegraph, telecon. Because when you are cops with information, they’re going to talk about it. So, when you provide accurate details to your internal audience, your personnel first, when they’re out on the street, they’re going to be able to dispel a lot of the misinformation that has been talked about on the streets. So, it’s crucial to inform them before a press release goes out to the public. We do a lot of internal communication recently with the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s face it. Cops had to come to work when people are sitting at home. And we were also, everybody just a little bit scared as to what does this virus at that everybody’s talking about. Am I going to be safe? Am I going to bring this home to my children? Am I going to… So, we were constantly communicating with our personnel and were doing video messaging with the Chief of Police At one point, we had a doctor here to provide information as they were learning it at the medical center, so our people were armed with information not just to make them feel safe. But they could dispel misinformation that was out there in the community and also bring it home to their families. So internal communication is key.
Philip Smith: I agree 100% with everything that’s been said. And not only as it pertains to critical incidents and those releases, but I think it also needs to be about just within the ecosystem of the department. If you have the opportunity maybe create a newsletter and have a newsletter recognizing officers of the month. Things of that nature. These officers get a 20-year anniversary. This officer just had a baby. Anything to kind of increase that family atmosphere in your ecosystem. We have something like that, and it comes from our public information office.
Audience Question: What role does alert and warning play in your role as PIO? And why aren’t more departments focusing on that part of the job?
Steven A. Smith Jr.: I think like trying to get information out as quickly as possible, obviously. Two recent I guess, alerts or warnings that we sent out here, we have a missing child. I want to get that information out as soon as possible. He was 11 years old. Thankfully, he is back home safe and in good health, and a lot of that was because of that alert or warning that went out. The other thing, too, is just the Crime Prevention materials that we need to send out. I know a lot of cities across the country are experiencing what we’re experiencing here in Albany there’s an increase in motor vehicle theft. So, just, putting information out there, alerting members of the community, that you should lock their doors, and take your keys with them, it’s starting to get cold here. In New York, it was about 60 today, so it’s only going to drop down to about in the next couple of months. But, make sure you leave your car running, get a remote car starter, and things like that. Those types of alerts are, I think, are imperative, and we put them up out quite often if that’s to help answer the question.
Philip Smith: Yes. That I was going to say, I didn’t know if there was some new software but, I got it now, I apologize for not knowing. Yes, that everything seems, it did get information out. Your social media is basically your community’s kind of lifeline to the police department directly because they’re no longer driving down to the precinct or headquarters. It’s all done by officers in person. So, that, I think, is very critical to get that information out and also using your news agencies, look at your social media too, and a lot of times they’ll put out your alerts and warnings as well.
Katie Nelson: Yes. I would utilize all of the things that are available to you on the various platforms when the situation warrants it for an alert and warning. So, Facebook has local alerts. If you don’t know what that is or you don’t have it, hit me up. We have a list of all of the regional reps for Facebook that would assist in getting your agency that option. Next door has the alert function where it sends a trifecta notification system – a text and e-mail, and then it pushes this as a big red bar on the top of the post so that people can see. And it keeps it really in the algorithm. It keeps it high so that people are aware of it. Twitter is the only one that doesn’t really have it. But Twitter moves so fast and it, if you’ve got something going that’s starting to gain some legs, it’s going to do its own, it’s going to do the work for you. There are options available to you. It’s just making sure that you’re not in a cry wolf scenario either where you think you have something that turns out to be, not a whole lot. That can happen, a lot with things like bomb threats and stuff like that. But making sure that you are at least informing your community is important. And using those functions, over a very specific period of time to help in that effort. To fill in Steve’s point, that’s important. And that’s huge. But we know that there’s a good balance between just alert and warning and providing information on situations that are happening in your community and the storytelling that needs to take place, too, for your agency. We are so bad at telling our own stories because you guys are also freaking humble. You’re very proud to work in the profession that you work in and you do it so well. It’s okay to tell those stories too. It’s okay to allow somebody in your agency to kind of pull the curtain back a little bit. I don’t remember who said it, but be your own news organization, be your own news agency. We’re not. It’s not to like to objectify or make it kind of some Hollywood everything. It is simply showing the humanity behind the badge. People tend to forget that there are men and women that serve every day, regardless of if it’s a birthday, a holiday, or what have you, they leave their families behind when they walk out the door to go and take care of tens of thousands of other people every day. Hundreds of thousands, millions sometimes. It’s good to let folks know that those people in those uniforms, the uniform, is the most uniform aspect of it, beyond that, everything is incredibly unique, and those people matter.
Audience Question: Would you ever engage directly on a media outlets page, such as a media outlet’s Facebook, Page, or Twitter? Would you ever directly engage on a media outlets page to set the record straight if the discussion is getting off track with misinformation? What’s your best advice?
Philip Smith: We get, there’s a YouTube video of the young man, he uses some choice language, and he says, “I got time today.” Sometimes you just got to have time to address that. You do, and that comes with being your own news outlet, that comes with you releasing your own stuff on your own terms. And that comes with that relationship building, because like we’re parents, and I’m not saying we’re the media’s parent, but just like parents, you know what you can and can’t get away with. And once you let somebody know what they can’t get away with, they won’t try anymore.
Steven A. Smith Jr.: Yes. And I’ve done it. If you go back to the relationship building, it comes down to it you get on the — with the news director, it’d be like, “Your news outlet is, is allowing this misinformation to continuously be spread.” And oftentimes, it’ll shut it down, too.
Click Here to Watch a Recording of A PIO Reflection Panel: Experiences, Tips and Lessons Learned.