In Minnesota last week, the U.S. Forest Service, in cooperation with several other state and regional agencies, held a week of training sessions for members of its firefighting teams. Incident commanders, public information officers, landowner liaison officers and those who hope to fill such positions in the future are required to go through both classroom training and an apprenticeship in the field to move up. Along with a local television news manager, a local newspaper reporter and a longtime public information officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, I was asked to participate on a panel about working with the media during large-scale fire incidents.
The panel was run as a question and answer session, and there were plenty of questions. Some covered the basics, such as the different deadlines for radio, television, newspapers and why the publishing of timely information has changed for all media because of websites and mobile platforms. Some touched on media access and safety procedures, especially in areas where people have been forced to evacuate their homes. But much of the conversation focused on social media and the capability of nearly everyone to publish what they've heard immediately through blogs, posts and tweets. The concern was that because of the ubiquity of social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, incorrect and unreliable information about an incident can spread like... well... wildfire.
In response, the message of the panel was that in emergency situations, it can be very difficult to squelch bad information online and it would probably take more manpower than is practical for an agency trying to do its job of putting out the fire. Instead, maintaining clear and frequent communication with local media outlets is a sound, proven strategy. No matter how well-maintained and updated the websites and social media accounts of firefighting agencies may be, displaced people probably have no idea where to find them. However, they are familiar with the web and social media accounts of their local newspaper, radio and television stations. They trust those familiar providers to bring them the most up-to-date and reliable information. By providing a steady stream of updates to the local media, the panel concluded, the agencies could reach the largest audience possible with the correct information and, if not eliminate rumor and speculation by residents, at least minimize problems. The media's loud voice can be helpful in fluid situations.
Finally, the panel encouraged the public information officers in the room to take their local media contacts out for coffee, or at least connect with them by phone from time to time, so they aren't meeting for the first time in the midst of an emergency situation. Putting a face to a name ahead of time can make a big difference when big news happens.
Does your assignment desk know your area's Forest Service or DNR public information officer? Have you talked in advance about what information you'll expect if a big fire starts in your coverage area? Tell us in the comments below.