A Control Test for Public Information Officers

We know … you’ve been here virtually the whole time.

Calling all Public Information Officer types who feel the never-ending urge to keep our finger on the button overseeing everything and everyone. All the time. Be honest and admit it. Being in control is fun (fun, yeah, I think that’s the right word,) but we should have a little talk … because being a PIO predisposed to control freakiness is a special kind of affliction when we’re responding to a critical incident or disaster because, well, control and chaos do not play well together.

So if this sounds like you, here’s a quick “yes-no” survey. Answer honestly:

  1. Do your alphabetized credit cards, color-coded pantry and closets have an organization system that would make the Library of Congress weep? (circle one) Y or N
  2. Did you secretly spend half of last Saturday organizing someone else’s junk drawer while they watched helplessly? Y or N
  3. Does a typical work week include you shouting “All 300 of you quiet down and look at me, I have an announcement!” on average, once per day? Y or N
  4. Does your business card read “Director of Communications, overseeing Media Relations, International Stakeholder Relations and Tribal Affairs specialist”? Y or N
  5. Do you simultaneously sit on the board of three major charities? At home are you in charge of scheduling play dates, doctor appointments, meals, vehicle maintenance, homework, paying bills, buying gifts, taking Mangey to the vet, balancing finances and overseeing the daily operational equivalent of a small country? Y or N

If you answered yes to 2 or 3 of the above, that’s cool … share this article and I’ll send you an invite to our Thursday night Control Freaks Meetup Group at The Container Store. If you answered yes to all 5, take a Xanax, book a tropical vacation STAT and try some deep breathing exercises before you spontaneously combust.

So you like control, no big deal. Here’s the thing … let’s say you’re a PIO type and your day-to-day span of control (the number of people who report directly to you) hovers around 20. When those day-to-day operations are interrupted by an incident big enough for your agency or company to stand up an Incident Command Post with a Joint Information Center attached, the rules change. If you want to succeed, you’re going to have to dial back that knee-jerk overlord omnipotence impulse and swallow the idea of controlling less people; before diving into that freshly brewed pot of crisis.

Back in the “olden days” (1970s) the Incident Command System was developed out of necessity by the Wildland Fire community to manage rapidly moving wildfires and address a number of reoccurring issues, one of which was too many people reporting to a single supervisor. After decades of testing at thousands of incidents, with JICs big and small being run by exceedingly dedicated and competent control freaks, a pattern emerged. It turns out no matter how good you are at organizing, managing, directing or putting the fear of Cthulu into people, if you try managing more than 7 people, effectiveness drops. Anything less than 5 and there are probably too many people and not enough to do. Thus, an optimum Span of Control number (5-7) was created to optimize a manager’s effectiveness.

The hard-to-swallow fact is; when it comes to success in the world of the ICS, ya gotta learn to Let It Go, Frozen style.

A response to a large incident, such as a major oil spill, can easily have hundreds or even thousands of people plugged into a system all at once.

This is sort of the magical, but not-so-secret concept that allows the entire ICS to work. The whole of the U.S. Government, from FEMA, all the way down to your local County Emergency Operations Center, and huge corporations alike all rely on this simple principle.

So how does this concept look in a properly run JIC? The beauty of the National Response Team JIC model organization chart springs to mind. That hive of activity overseen by that most omnipotent of all multi-armed beasts known as the JIC Manager is a perfect example of Span of Control. Sitting 2nd from the top of the JIC organization chart, the JM’s job is to literally oversee the entire JIC. A type 1 incident can easily have 30-stressed out communication peeps, running 24-hours a day.

On the surface it seems the JM weighs in on every single decision, from JIC position assignments to press conference logistics to when their JIC underlings are allowed to eat. Seriously.

If you look a little closer, that beast is really only directly tasking their Assistant Public Information Officers. Typically large JICs have 4 APIOs, respectively filling the roles of Information Gathering, Information Products, Media Relations and Community Relations (Spoiler Alert – be on the lookout for the possible addition of an APIO for Social Media coming soon to a JIC near you). Those APIOs in turn are directly managing their own 5-7 specialists or assistants. Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, there can be failures even when adhering to this rule. It’s still the most proven form of emergency organization we’ve got. So go forth, you lovely control freak, you. Control the ever-living heck out of everyone around you. All 5 to 7 of them.

Talk to me, Goose.

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