Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Communications Golden Hour (A Guide for Public Information Officers During Emergencies)

Consider any high profile, life-threatening emergency that has occurred recently. A bevvy of trained, dedicated professionals serves as first responders. They tend to individuals directly affected. At the same time, they mitigate the consequences of threats to public health and safety.

Among this cadre of professionals are public information officers (PIOs). These individuals gather and disseminate information critical to those affected by the emergency. Typically, they assume these emergency response duties on top of their routine work. These responsibilities require different skill sets and training, with little margin for error. 

Doug Levy wrote The Communications Golden Hour to help PIOs in emergency situations. It aims to guide them as they work to “prime the pump of credible, shareable information” (pg. xii) during the most trying circumstances. 

Levy is ideally suited for the task. He’s had PIO duty in emergency incidents and was incident commander in several, mostly while he held university administration jobs at Columbia University and University of California, San Francisco. Perhaps more importantly, Levy has guided, advised, and trained command staff before, during, and after emergencies. He also helped to craft communications protocols and plans. 

In short, Levy has “been there and done that.” He's grappled with what PIOs confront in emergencies: rapid-fire communications and decision-making processes.

The “Golden Hour” refers to the initial period after an emergency. It demands quick, calm, and accurate communication. The scale of the emergency must be determined. Messages need to be refined and tailored for individual audiences. Appropriate spokespeople are assigned. Finally, the optimal mix of tools to communicate are employed. Here Levy emphasizes the need to identify the SOCO (single overriding communications objective). He also elaborates on the elements in effective emergency messaging. 

Levy deftly addresses the aforementioned topics and more. He poses probing questions to challenge practitioners. He urges them to reflect on emergency response responsibilities before they need to. To this end, Levy provides detailed, minute-by-minute communications from the initial phases of select emergencies. These model the lessons he’s attempting to impart to the reader elsewhere in this work. 

To that end, Levy argues persuasively for the need to plan in advance. This effort includes knowing your “circle of influencers” (pg. 18). It requires spending time getting to build relationships. It means getting to know emergency response team members in your community and organization. 

To assist the PIO further, Levy provides a series of check lists and templates in the Appendix of the book. These pages help to pull together information PIOs need to manage future “communications golden hours.” 

The Communications Golden Hour covers a lot of ground well in a very concise work. That’s a distinct advantage for time-pressed yet information hungry PIOs. That said, the book would have been even more useful had Levy:
  • Introduced key concepts such as the “Communications Golden Hour” and SOCO earlier. Also, he might have weaved them more consistently into the remainder of the text;
  • Incorporated a one-page glossary with definitions of key terms and acronyms. This list could include specialized vocabulary used during emergency situations. See, for example, the Emergency Alert Systems (pg. 100);
  • Included references throughout the text to worksheets in the Appendix. These connections would help the reader apply Levy’s lessons more expeditiously. Along the same vein, he might have included an introduction to the Appendix. This context would help the reader to better navigate its individual documents; 
  • Included an actual plan in the Appendix;
  • Addressed how PIOs work with other members of the emergency team during the “Communications Golden Hour;” and
  • Provided additional insight into what “traditional” news media look for in an emergency and how they work.
These suggestions aside, Levy should be commended for his ability to meld his experience and insight in this highly readable work. He has delivered an invaluable “how to” guide for practitioners. It undoubtedly will benefit PIOs regardless of their level of experience.

No comments: