Working as a Public Information Officer (PIO) is never easy. Misspeak one word and the media can change the entire meaning of what you wanted the listener to hear. I had the honor of riding along with Phoenix Fire Department PIO, Captain Ardell Deliz, who has mastered her position. Interestingly, her communication strategy is the same for each of us, whether in the office or with our friends and family.
Approaching any conversation with the goal of a successful, non-controversial outcome is essential, even when the other person wants to stir it up. With Ardell, she must remember that the ‘reporters’ are looking for sensationalism. When the reporter from Fox News was at the scene of a fire we went to, she approached him. The reporter did not have to find her. This is her job. And I believe it is all of our jobs, in most cases, to address issues and start conversations to resolve any situation. This should be a ground rule we establish for ourselves.
Get in a ‘Safe Spot’
As with Ardell, the job is to get in a location that is comfortable for all parties (away from the danger at the scene). If you are in an office, find a neutral zone, such as a conference room, to have the conversation. If you are at home, find a similar place that does not pose a threat to you or the other person. Stay calm, even when they do not.
Getting the Facts
Ask questions and get as much background and information as you can. Ardell asks the firefighters at the scene, the investigator and whomever else can fill in some of the gaps. She doesn’t guess. We need to do the same. Ask questions, listen carefully, and then ask more questions. Paraphrase to insure you have heard correctly. Often what people say is not what they mean. Use attribution so no matter the situation, the facts are relayed, not the emotion you might be feeling. And give credit where credit is due!
What Do They Want to Know?
Really, it’s fairly simple. Depending on the nature of the conversation, the other person wants answers to six basic questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? Think like a reporter. The majority of the time this will serve you well.
When Do They Want to Know It?
The short answer to that question is, ASAP. Not information others on the knowledge you have forces them to create their own story. People are like the media; they want answers now! The issue or topic does not get resolved until you address it. Sometimes this is a real pain, but it is also the real world. Be concise. Getting too deep in the weeds typically creates more of a mess to clean up!
What You Don’t Know.
There was so much to learn from Captain Deliz. Raised in Puerto Rico has proven to be a bonus as she is multilingual. This was very handy when we were at the scene of the house fire and the homeowner spoke Spanish. Not only is she a college student, she is an avid mountain biker and hiker, works constantly on growing her leadership skills and is an amazing role model for so many. And to think just a few years ago she was working in retail at the Toys R Us!
Her goal is to constantly polish her communication skills because you don’t learn them from a book.