Public affairs in a box: Preparing before disaster strikes

It should come as no surprise that the PAO, including crisis information and external communications, is one of the foundational components of an all-hazards emergency-management program. What is surprising is that a study of PAO technology and communications across local, state and even federal levels highlights the existence of programmatic/operations differences—and, in some cases, deficiencies—that are great enough to disrupt the office’s daily function.
In difficult economic times, budgetary growth at the local and state levels is often flat. When everyone is told to “do more with less,” salaries and operating expenses are given priority. At the same time, purchases and/or upgrades of electronic equipment and computer software are relegated to a lower priority.
During flat fiscal cycles, public affairs officers must consider whether the critical and necessary daily function of their offices, or even the emergency function of the Joint Information Centers (JICs), justifies a need for the latest and greatest hardware and software.
Changes and improvements to both equipment and technology are constant. Anyone who buys a computer accepts the fact that, in less than a year, improvements will be made to subsequent releases. It is not fiscally responsible or even technologically necessary to replace computers every year. However, what must be understood is that, in the age of 24-hour news, computers and the Internet, computers are the primary tools to create and deliver the message to the public. If the emergency-management organization lacks current technology—newer hardware and software—then it lacks the effective means to communicate. In today’s tech-savvy environments, a middle ground is necessary between computer relics using antiquated Windows operating systems with 28.6 kbps modems versus the latest computer off the shelf. It is one thing for an organization to say that it must have a functional public affairs office, or even the ability to stand up a JIC, it is quite another to have the equipment and technology ready for action.
So what’s the solution? Perhaps consideration should be given to the creation of deployable “PAOs/JICs in a box.” Much the way local, state and federal agencies have pre-positioned pharmaceutical supplies, field hospitals or hazardous materials response equipment, perhaps a pre-identified list of equipment needs to include computers, printers, fax machines, copiers and wireless modems to be made available upon request.
Having a message at the ready
For the most part, local and state agencies recognize the value in delivering necessary information (press releases and media advisories) to the proper audience, provided the information is approved, sometimes at multiple levels. However, as the message passes through approval levels, it’s often altered to the point where either its original meaning is lost or its timeliness expires.
An approval process is appropriate and necessary. However, a system must exist where the message meets the audience in a timely manner — especially during times of crisis. The leadership of the organization has an awesome responsibility to separate fact from fiction and assure the public that its safety is the organization’s paramount focus. Waiting too long to deliver the message will result in mistrust, panic and hysteria.
Perhaps the solution to the dilemma resides in the concept of message standardization: pre-scripted, multilingual message templates, form wizards and story ideas available in PAOs. Some local, state and even federal agencies have developed pre-scripted messages. Those messages and templates should be in the “PAO/JIC in a box,” ready to deploy to the requesting organization. If the equipment is sent to an organization, why not send sample standardized messages, as well?
Emergency-management agencies, whether at the local or state level, acknowledge that public affairs officers have a responsibility to deliver effective communications to the citizens they serve. Effective communication fosters education, which leads to awareness; awareness leads to prevention; and prevention leads to safety. Our citizens want to see and hear a proactive government reacting to an emergency while striving to return normalcy to the communities. Let us work to make certain that our PAOs have themeans and resources to provide the face and the voice of the emergency-management agency during any and all hazards. HST
Charles J. Couch is principle spokesperson for the Ohio Emergency Management Agency. He has spent the last 12 years working within the field of emergency management at both the county and state levels.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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