PIO Tips for “Staying Frosty” During Disaster Response

I’ve written on this subject in the past but with Hurricane Matthew being nigh and many of my former public information officer colleagues setting up in its path (or waiting for the call to do so,) I thought I’d re-rack a version of a post I wrote two years ago about some of the intangible lessons I learned responding to all types of critical incidents – large and small – as an Incident Command System Type 1 all-hazard public information officer.

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Communication is a human function that requires empathy and sincerity in order to be effective, especially during an incident, disaster or any other event in which people feel threatened, scared and distrustful.

I’ve found no amount of training, instruction or simulation can fully prepare the communicator for their own emotional reactions to the chaos that ensues when it’s hitting the proverbial fan. The only remedy I’ve seen is exposure.

The new guy and seasoned veteran, both being human, will feel the same things during an incident. The difference is the veterans (the “Salts”) know it’s coming, recognize it and adjust their outward reactions accordingly. In other words, the difference is not in what each feels but in how they manage what they’re feeling.

In our profession we talk a lot about the importance of clarity in the chaotic initial stages of a disaster. Having a plan and knowing your job is important but it’s not enough. We are human which means we are susceptible to certain biological and emotional factors during disaster response. It’s those human factors that present the biggest challenge in obtaining that all important clarity during chaos.

The following is an overview of the emotional and biological responses I saw and felt (followed by how I managed them) most often in my own experiences responding to airline disasters, hurricanes, chemical spills, floods, terrorist threats, human-caused and natural disasters of nearly every kind.

FrustrationThis is due to any number of factors, but I saw this most among PIOs as a result of a compulsion to want to control information coming from sources external to the Joint Information Center. Few things can get you off focus quicker than seeing someone else talk about an issue or operation you feel you should own, especially when it’s not accurate.

It’s going to happen. There are going to be multiple sources of information other than you and your incident management organization and you won’t have control over any of them. All you can do is be the best and most responsive source of information so that those seeking information are inclined to get it from you.

OverwhelmedYou’re going to feel as though there are aren’t enough resources to be effective and not enough hours in a day to get things done.

You’re going to feel that way because it will be true.

Incident response isn’t normal business operations or project management, it is crisis and, in crisis, you have to triage your issues. You will never get to all the things you think you should, but you can get to the most important ones if you’re focused, mindful and aware.

Adrenaline/Euphoria/ExhaustionThese are grouped together because they are part of a cycle we humans are susceptible to in the first 24 to 36 hours of a major incident. As if emotions weren’t enough to contend with, you’ll also face the human biological response to crisis. Adrenaline will give you hyper focus, make you irritable and put you at odds with the pace at which other people in the response are moving. When you’re running on natural amphetamine and your principal is coming down off it, communication signals will get crossed. You’ll lose all aptitude for pacing yourself as it feels like a sprint when it’s really a marathon.

The euphoria can also feel like being buzzed and we don’t always behave appropriately when we’re buzzed – we yammer, our mind-to-mouth filter malfunctions and we overreact.

The flip side is the exhaustion that sets in when your body runs out of adrenaline. This is where you need to be mindful of getting complacent, irritable and sloppy. This is dangerous when you’ve been answering the same question from media all day and by the 102nd go ‘round with the same question you get flippant, leave things out or go off message.

Fight or FlightWhen we feel overwhelmed, accosted, insulted or judged, we risk taking things personally and losing perspective. We risk assuming the mindset of the people we are trying to help and inform; we become angry, distrustful and scared. As a result we feel the need to either push back or shut down. This is especially problematic for a communicator because it’s our responsibility to ensure our principals and other operators don’t adopt this mind-set.

Once again, we all feel these things to one degree or another, novice and pro. Here’s how I’ve learned to manage them:

* Awareness: Being mindful of what to expect and understanding how it can knock me off my game puts me in the right state of mind going in. I stay mindful that the emotions are normal. That type of awareness will put what I’m feeling in the proper context.

* Deep Breaths: Sound cliché? Well, it’s cliché for a reason … it works. It’s the simplest and most basic form of meditation and focus. A couple deep breaths bring me back to the present. It gets oxygen going to all the parts that need it and it gives me a moment to reset.

* Remembering Why I’m There: Getting information to the people who need it during crisis is a simple thing. It may not be easy to do but the process is simple. You gather information, you verify the facts, you package those facts in a digestible format, you disseminate those facts to the publics who want them. When I’m stuck in the mud, I take those deep breaths to refocus and just follow (read: trust) the process.

*Keeping it Simple and *Being Consistent: When I’m responding to a crisis incident I’m not trying to win an Anvil award (PR award), the Nobel Peace prize or save the world. I’m simply ensuring accurate information is flowing consistently and effectively. It’s like meatball surgery, the nickname for the kind of surgery MASH units performed, designed to get a patient stabilized as quickly as possible so he or she can survive long enough to get additional help for a full recovery.Once I get through the first 24 to 72 hours, I get relief and the response operation finds its battle rhythm.

4 thoughts on “PIO Tips for “Staying Frosty” During Disaster Response

  1. As a MASH fan, love the meatball analogy. Much of business is all about goals and objectives – the strategy by which they’re achieved. That means setting priorities, focusing on what matters. In crisis mode, you often triage — do what you must right away, do what you’ve got to do next, then eval the process once the dust settles.

    You’re spot on – you can’t worry about winning awards or waiting for the ‘right’ moments. Perfect is great but almost impossible to achieve and in a crisis, done is usually much better for everyone. FWIW.

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    • Thanks Davina! Knew I’d risk dating myself with the MASH reference but it seemed appropriate.

      I appreciate adding your comments and thanks for reading.

      – Paul

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  2. Paul
    I especially enjoyed the reference to getting asked the same questions repeatedly. One of the best solutions to that issue, especially in the early response phase, is to say early and often that the crisis/disaster is in the early stages and there is much we don’t yet know. Repeat as necessary (after taking those deep breaths).
    Howard County Police Chief McMahon did this early and often during the press briefings in the wake of the Columbia Mall shooting in Maryland last winter. It didn’t stop the silly questions but it probably blunted them a bit.

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    • Ed, thanks – you’re absolutely right.

      The Howard County police response to the Columbia Mall shooting is a case study in effective crisis communication.

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