At the meeting of the Rotary Club of Burney and Fall River at Geppetto’s Pizza on Thursday, March 31, Valerie Lakey spoke about her four-day Advanced Public Information Officer Training at the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Georgia.
Ms. Lakey is the Marketing Director for the Mayers Memorial Hospital District. She also serves as Mayers Director of Pubic Information. Ms. Lakey attended the training as part of a group of 40 public information officers in California, most of whom represented health care facilities.
The Center for Domestic Preparedness is the only U.S. federal facility chartered to provide comprehensive preparedness training programs to the nation’s emergency response providers. It is a part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which in turn is an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security. The Center for Domestic Preparedness is located on the grounds of former Fort McClellan.
Ms. Lakey said that the four-day training was “intense.” She did not just attend classes. She also acted as part of a Joint Information Center (JIC) for a fictitious state of Columbia as it underwent a series of catastrophes such as tornadoes, a train wreck with a toxic spill, and a car accident in which the governor of Columbia and his family were all killed. Their JIC had to define roles, build working relationships, gather information, determine what groups needed to be informed, and hold mock news conferences to deliver accurate and succinct reports.
The training schedule, including meals, breaks, sleep, etc., was defined by the crises as though these were real events.
The purpose of the training was to teach participants to communicate effectively in a crisis. A public information officer needs to be able to get the right information to the right people at the right time.
A public information officer also needs to be able to connect with the people they are communicating with. That includes the public, staff, the media, and family members that are affected by a disaster.
In order to connect one must also learn to “think with one’s heart.” Vague assurances such as “Our thoughts and prayers are with you” may not be effective.
In assessing the information being gathered, ask yourself, “What breaks your heart?” That is the point where you will connect empathetically with others.
Then a PIO needs to be able to determine what information is needed by each group. They need to clarify their message so that it can be communicated most effectively. Her instructors counseled them to
Don’t cause confusion by conveying unclear, speculative, or inaccurate information. Be accurate and truthful. Don’t get caught up in talking just for the sake of talking.
Ms. Lakey also said that one of the most valuable parts of her experience was getting to know the other participants from around the state and forming a network that can share ideas, information and experience.
She plans to continue her training until she is qualified to become a trainer herself in this area.
After her talk, Rotary Club members asked several questions including how the Rotary can help. Andrew Urlie shared his experience trying to get information when the Bald, Day, and Eiler fires were occurring locally. Each fire had a separate information unit and it was difficult to get precise information locally.
This is the reason that a Joint Information Center is helpful. Fire departments, law enforcement, government agencies, and local organizations such as Mayers Memorial Hospital have public information officers. The formation of a JIC with representatives from all parties would act as a central point to clarify, coordinate, and communicate accurately in case of an emergency.