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Officials learn the when, why and how of public information in a crisis

5/14/2012 12:00 AM

Getting information out to the public in times of disaster is vital to saving lives, but it requires planning, training and practice. The Texas Engineering Extension Service’s two-day, grant-funded course, "Public Information in a WMD/Terrorism Incident” (MGT-318), covers the management and technical issues that practitioners must master when dealing with the media during times of crisis.

“To recognize the importance of public information during a crisis, you only have to pose this question: What happens if people don’t get the message?” said Shawn Mecham, Training Manager with TEEX’s Emergency Services Training Institute (ESTI).

The course focuses on the management issues Public Information Officers (PIOs) and other jurisdictional leaders face when dealing with a large-scale event, such as terrorism or a natural disaster, and with media needs and attitudes in the same environment. Attendees learn the six phases in the Crisis Communication Lifecycle, Mecham said. For each phase, they work in peer groups to gain an awareness of the issues they will likely face and develop tools on how to respond to those issues.

TEEX offers the course at no cost to qualified jurisdictions across the nation through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)/Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Homeland Security National Training Program Cooperative Agreement. It is geared for emergency responders and managers, PIOs, elected and appointed officials, hospital/health department administrators, school district administrators, federal and state officials, or anyone who might speak to media during a crisis.

Since adding the PIO course to its curriculum, TEEX has conducted more than 150 deliveries under the DHS/FEMA National Training Program and for the Texas Division of Emergency Management. More than 2,500 people in over 30 states and U.S. territories have completed the training.

The fast-paced course encourages participants to share thoughts and experiences associated with emerging trends. “With any threat, PIOs recognize the need to keep people informed,” Mecham said. “It is more than informing the media and directing them to the appropriate Web site. Now we have to think about the use of social media, which is changing the face of emergency response. Not only is the public using social media, but the traditional media is also using social media to get the story. Does every organization or jurisdiction have a social media policy?

“The course encourages crisis communications planning and team-building,” he added. “Hopefully the jurisdiction has a plan in place. If not, we provide resources and link them to the DHS database (Lessons Learned Information Sharing - LLIS.gov). We help them get a template for their plan. There are obvious challenges for small jurisdictions with no money, but we discuss community resources they can call on, such as service organizations that can answer phones or fulfill other roles and responsibilities. We also discuss how to build, staff, and manage a joint information center.”

On the second day of the course, participants tackle practical exercises and group activities. They divide into groups and hold a press conference exercise while role-playing using several DHS training exercise scenarios, Mecham said. “One element each group must decide is its first statement to the media – when will you do it? The group’s initial statement is important because it sets the tone for the response and is critical to public understanding and credibility of the response effort.”

Footage of the Minnesota bridge collapse crisis is shown in the class to demonstrate a successful use of public information and media management. “All 170 agencies involved in the response worked together effectively, in large part because they had training beforehand,” he said. “This shows the importance of planning and training. The state, city and county all worked together to effectively mitigate the crisis.”

The Public Information in a WMD/Terrorism Incident course is a DHS-certified management level course that serves anyone who might interact with the media, whether they are a seasoned PIO or someone who has never held a press conference. Currently, the course is being recertified by DHS/FEMA for all-hazards training.

Mecham says the goal of this important training is to get everyone to understand how to help unify crisis communications, how to connect with target audiences, and how to effectively communicate with empathy and caring.

“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care,” he said. “By being caring and empathetic, you let the media and the public know we can get through this crisis together.”

Contact Information

Kathy Fraser

Associate Director of Marketing and Communications

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