National Information Officers Association conference

August 29, 2008

I just returned from Reno where I was privileged to keynote the annual National Information Officers Association conference. This was one of my most pleasant conference experiences ever. As I told the group on Tuesday, they are the nation’s trust builders. It is their job each and every day to help build trust among the public and stakeholders for the fire departments, police departments, emergency management agencies and all types of government agencies represented. It is a very impressive group, smart, dedicated and concerned about getting the information about the good things their agencies do out to the media and publics.

A few observations. Many of the themes of instant news are being very actively discussed in a group like this. There is growing awareness of the shifting sands of public information and the need to adapt. It still strikes me that most live in a media-dominated world vs a post-media world and I’m not sure how much my message there really resonated with the group. Most PIOs consider it their job to get the info about what is going on, respond to reporter phone calls, do a standup interview or a press conference if it is big enough and they have done their jobs. There is insufficient awareness in my mind that today’s stakeholders in their communities no longer consider it sufficient to get their news about the agencies activities from the media. Direct communication is getting critically important and few are preparing for this demand.

Another thing that struck me was the relatively placid acceptance of what one presenter called being on “the last mile.” The presenter was a PIO for the bridge collapse in Minneapolis and she commented that she found out about the collapse from the news media and her best information about what was going on continued to be the news media. Those managing the response were simply too busy to keep her, the PIO, informed–she was on the last leg of the information chain. This is completely and totally unacceptable and PIOs across the nation need to stand up against this.

The question that they must repeatedly ask the response managers is: who do you want to tell your story? Do you want the news media whose job it is to entertain and that frequently comes by finding someone to blame, to put the black hat on? Do you want the bloggers, eye witness observers, frequently with their own agendas and axes to grind to tell the story? Or should the information about the event and the response come from the response itself. The old fogies who make the decisions about controlling information or keeping PIOs in the dark have the outdated notion that the story is controlled by them and released at their pace. No. The pace is set by those who have information–any information true, false or indifferent. The responders have only one choice–tell it fast, tell it accurate, tell it complete–or let everyone tell the story for them.

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