A New Guide for Public Information Officers

Do I really need another pocket field guide? YES! Also, I'm going to need more pockets.

Do I really need another pocket field guide? YES! I’m also going to need more pockets.

My friends over at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Public Information Assist Team – the service’s deployable crisis communications experts – have alerted me to two things in the last few weeks – one, that the service has published a new pocket guide for incident public information officers (PIO) and, two, that they began distributing (and training to it) last week during the lead-up to a full-scale disaster exercise in Cape Cod.

While hard copies of the publication may be limited, the service has released a PDF version online.

The pocket guide is intended for service members who may serve as the PIO or an assistant PIO during an incident command system (ICS) managed response, but there are plenty of gems to mine throughout the extensive document for local, state and federal incident management team members, or professional communicators in the private sector who may collaborate with them during crises.

The first few dozen pages contain a lot of ICS- or Coast Guard-specific information. Good background, in case you’ll ever work with the Coast Guard or organizations that use ICS (which is the mandated operational management system for all local, state and federal emergency response, by the way). If you’re unfamiliar with the ICS system, I wrote about free online training recently – open to anyone, and not a heavy lift for the introductory courses.

Starting on page 25, though, with the “Situation Assessment” section, is where anyone who does crisis communications can learn and apply best practices. This first section is comprehensive, and is a good guide for anyone who has just arrived to the scene of an incident to develop situational awareness – necessary before you can get to work!

Page 34 starts the in-depth position descriptions for people who may staff a joint information center during an incident, complete with common tasks for each position and the role of each in the information organization.

The “meetings and briefings” section is great – it gives clear guidance to prospective PIOs on what is expected when they interact with leadership and other members of the command and general staff in an ICS organization. There are nuggets throughout, though, that can transcend any response to an incident, no matter the organizational hierarchy.

Leadership lessons are stressed throughout the document. A key thing for readers to keep in mind is that this is guidance intended for military personnel (but civilians can learn a lot from this peek behind the curtain!).

“On-scene leadership is primarily a function of will and skill. You may have subordinates who routinely report to you in your regular job. More likely, however, is that you will have a mix of subordinates (federal, state, local, contractor, volunteer, etc). You may only see them as a group once, or you may be together for an extended period.” (pg. 57)

Nearly 50 appendix pages provide templates, checklists and examples of everything from developing talking points and key PIO_planning_Pmessages to conducting media briefings to planning an incident community open house.

If you work for an organization that uses standard field operations guides or incident management handbooks, this field guide is a good complement. It provides granularity on the role of the public information officer and his or her staff during an incident response. If you work in the private sector, the concepts and best practices contained within the product may benefit your in-place crisis communications plan.

For even more depth on how public information operations work during incident response, I recommend (“… as always,” I know!) the U.S. National Response Team’s Joint Information Center Model.

Talk to me, Goose.

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