APS Hosts Inaugural PIO Symposium at ASU Cronkite School

Yesterday APS hosted the inaugural PIO (Public Information Officer) Symposium at the ASU Cronkite School in downtown Phoenix. It was an excellent event that drew more than 125 communications and public relations professionals from a wide spectrum of government, nonprofit and educational agencies. The theme for the symposium was crisis communications, and the format was great as a half-day series of keynotes and panels. The APS Corporate Communications department brought in two excellent keynote speakers in nationally renowned crisis communications expert Gerard Braud and Karen Hughes, former senior communications strategies for President George W. Bush. Their presentations stole the show, bookended around a local media panel on what they expect from PIOs during crisis news situations and a communications panel on lessons learned from emergency scenarios.

I hope this can become an annual or biannual symposium, as it is rare to bring so many agency spokespersons together in one forum. It has the potential to expand into a full-day conference given the many sub-topics of crisis communications that could be covered in additional breakout sessions. I love the detail that APS put into the event, providing a nice commemorative notebook (always need a new one for my notes), several PowerPoint handouts and a spreadsheet of contact information for all of the event attendees. I am going to try to avoid referencing “social media” in my recap (except for one of the speaker tips below) as you can expect that weaved its way through the course of the proceedings.

Gerard Braud provided great perspective on news coverage before, during and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and he advised communicators to develop their crisis plans on sunny days and conduct annual updates and media trainings. He also emphasized that PIOs should not “overassure” the public or “minimize” an ongoing situation when speaking to breaking news on an emergency incident or tragedy. He recommended keeping a “recipe book” for a crisis as a living document that should undergo ongoing assessments. Braud talked about the need for communicators and organizations to conduct vulnerability assessments and address smoldering issues that could come up. In the overall scheme of planning and executing, the end goal is to help move the public out of harm’s way, save resources and lower losses. His tips for communicating in a crisis:

  1. When you fail to plan, then plan to fail.
  2. The best crisis management is done on a clear sunny fay, long before the crisis happens.
  3. When it comes to crisis communications, tried and true beats shiny and new.
  4. Social media is often your worst communications nightmare in a crisis.
  5. Someone is going to edit what you say. It might as well be you.
  6. The CEO is seldom the correct spokesperson during a crisis.
  7. Practice makes perfect. Practice talking to the media and hold regular crisis communication drills.
  8. Don’t talk to the media, but rather to the media’s audience

It was amazing to hear Karen Hughes, now the Worldwide Vice Chair of Burson-Marsteller, recall some of her experiences working with President Bush and having to provide “unvarnished” feedback to him following his speeches. She spoke about a program she instituted at the State Department to help ambassadors abroad provide daily statements on America’s stance on news and hot-button issues round the world.

CBS-5 News Anchor Sean McLaughlin was an excellent moderator for the local media panel and kept things moving, even as each participant had so much to share on how they work with PIOs on around-the-clock news such as shootings and natural disasters. Media panelists encouraged the need for speed in a PIO response to media requests even when information is scarce. A basic Tweet update or alert about a press conference to address the status of a situation can prevent a continuous flood of calls and messages for a statement. Steve Elliott, Director of Cronkite News Service, noted that PIOs should avoid ambiguity to enhance their working relationships with media outlets (i.e. don’t issue a response like “about half of the flights will be grounded”) and that clarity, transparency and context is essential.

Matt Benson, Director of Communications for Arizona Governor Janice K. Brewer, was another great moderator while leading the PIO perspective panel on lessons learned from working crisis situations. He injected some humor in referencing “Fingergate” on the tarmac and started to walk out when he wondered how the local agency information was being handled with all of the PIOs congregated in the same room away from their office. One panelist noted that we no longer live in the proverbial 24-hour news cycle, but rather it is now a 1440 cycle (the number of minutes in a day) with the non-stop nature of online news dissemination.

Judy Johnson from GolinHarris highlighted the concept of “The Golden Hour” in describing the critical period when a communications response plan must be deployed rapidly. She advocates using a “SMART” methodology for crisis readiness (Scenarios, Materials, Approach, Resources and Training) and cited the 6 “Rs” that correspond to crisis communications: Rapid Response – Regret – Responsibility – Resolution – Reform – Restitution.

In her slides, today’s news cycle revolution was articulated in the form of this progression:  24 hours (traditional New York Times coverage) –> 24 minutes (CNN online story) —> 24 seconds (breaking news in real-time on Twitter).

Scott Peterson of the Nuclear Energy Institute detailed his experience in the aftermath of last year’s Fukushima nuclear power plant incident as he had to prepare nuclear facility experts, brief congressional leaders and deploy a digital media team to address all of the concerns and coverage surrounding the disaster.

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