Communicating in Crisis: Preparing the Public Information Officer

In Part Six of the series “Communicating in Crisis,” a checklist for the EHS professional provides insight into the information you might  be asked to provide in a crisis.

Depending on the magnitude of the crisis, the role of the EHS practitioner in many cases is not only to gather and report information but to anticipate what information will be asked Shot of two warehouse workers standing on stairs using a digital tablet and looking at paperwork.

The EHS practitioner likely will lead or be a big part of gathering data and producing information that will be used for communications with the public, media sources and officials affected by the crisis. In most organizations, there is a role defined as public information officer (PIO), and while various titles may be used organizationally, it is this person who serves as the public face for the organization.

The Role of the PIO

The PIO decides what to communicate, how much information is released and when updates are warranted. The PIO could cover communications to:

  • Victims and families affected by the crisis event
  • Emergency services (e.g., fire, rescue, hazmat)
  • General public
  • Affected geographical locations
  • Surrounded businesses
  • Community leaders
  • Media
  • Governmental agencies
  • Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)
  • Response and recovery organizations (e.g., urban search and rescue)
  • Utilities
  • Emergency response

As the EHS practitioner, your objective is to support the PIO with information detailing what has occurred and with clear and concise supporting data that is organized in a logical order. The public information officer will need to understand as much information about the crisis event as practical, and will need it quickly, but not so soon that facts are missed or misrepresented. 

Details Are Important

Generally, there is a need for as much detail as possible: the event details and how the event has affected the organization internally; any actions that are warranted to be taken by the public, businesses or industries within the area of concern; and what steps are being made to return the organization to normal.

Although every crisis event is different, I have created “How to Communicate in a Crisis: A Checklist for the EHS Professional,” which lists some common information you might be asked to provide to the PIO.

Depending on the magnitude of the crisis, the role of the EHS practitioner in many cases is not only to gather and report information but to anticipate what information will be asked of the PIO and what probable next steps can be expected as the event unfolds. Using your legacy knowledge as an EHS practitioner, your experience is paramount in anticipating possible questions that could be asked and then supplying the PIO with credible answers that can be communicated effectively.

Blog Series: Communicating in Crisis

This series of articles “Communicating in Crisis,” will help you navigate what could be rough waters ahead. Whether it’s dealing with a situation like COVID-19, a chemical spill, or an injury-causing event, you can handle it with the right crisis plan in place.

At some point in your career, you are going to experience a critical event. If you are practicing EHS right now, you’re living through an unprecedented crisis. How you manage these events impacts their lasting effect on employees, the business, the community and your value as an EHS practitioner.

Other Articles in the Series “Communicating in Crisis”

Communicating in Crisis: The Role of the EHS Practitioner
Communicating in Crisis: The Role of EHS in Managing Communication
Communicating in Crisis: Employees
Communicating in Crisis: Emergency Response Planning, Preparation and Training
Communicating in Crisis: Government Agencies

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About Scott Gaddis

Scott Gaddis leads the integration of the Intelex EHSQ Alliance in thought leadership and building partnerships with top influencers in EHS, working with professionals across the globe to deliver a platform for sharing information and collectively driving solutions that mitigate workplace loss. Scott has more than 25 years in EHS leadership experience in heavy manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and packaging. Before joining Intelex, Scott served as Vice President, EHS for Coveris High Performance Packaging, Executive Director of EHS at Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Global Leader for Occupational Safety and Health at Kimberly-Clark Corporation.

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