PIO or crisis comms manager – the differences

The public information officer does not replace the need for corporate communications
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By Dustin Eno

The Public Information Officer (PIO) role within the Incident Command System (ICS) is vitally important and sits directly below the incident commander within the organisational chart. Filling this role will help to ensure an accurate flow of information about the incident response to the public.

However, filling this role is not enough to protect the involved company’s reputation or to deliver a full communications response. The PIO does not replace the need for corporate communications which are fundamentally different from the incident communications delivered by the PIO.

On the surface, a PIO and a crisis comms manager will likely perform many of the same tasks, including writing press releases, speaking with journalists and organising press conferences. However, despite these similarities, there are four differences that make their roles very different.

1. Who they report to

The PIO reports to the Incident Commander for the incident – it is generally a short term relationship. A PIO may be from the responsible company, the Coast Guard or any other organisation (potentially with no involvement in the incident). Any trained PIO can fit into the mix and they will primarily represent the response rather than the organisation they come from. It is essential that the public hears about the response (from the PIO) but they also need to hear from the company (the Responsible Party), and this is the responsibility of the crisis comms manager. They will report to the company’s senior leadership and they’re responsible for representing the company rather than the incident.

2. What they say

PIOs communicate information about the incident and the response. The emphasis is on fact-based communications including information about beach closures, amounts of oil spilled, the objectives of the response, resources involved in clean up activities, details about public safety, etc. The crisis communications manager will communicate about the company. This may include factual information intended to set the incident in context, such as details of the company’s safety track record and training policies. More importantly though, it will include communications which are not fact based, such as expressions of regret (possibly apologies), statements of sympathy or commitments to conduct investigations. Both roles are essential.

3. How their voice is perceived by the public

When a PIO’s job is performed well, they will be widely trusted by the public. They are generally perceived to be impartial and non-partisan. They’re seen as a source of information. Crisis communications managers often have a much harder job winning public trust. As a representative of the company, they may face blame and may be accused of attempting to cover-up or minimise the situation. However, when the role is performed well, they can demonstrate the humanity and empathy of the company involved. They can also communicate a context for the incident which makes it harder for the public to perceive the company as irresponsible, less reputable, or plain “evil”.

4. Training and experience

PIOs will have completed ISC training including PIO specific courses. Most organisations follow up course work by a new officer shadowing exercises and real events in preparedness. The PIO role can be very rewarding, and many individuals have decades of experience performing the role. PIOs may come from other communications or journalism backgrounds, but in my experience most PIOs come to the position from other non-communications focused backgrounds having been chosen for their communications abilities. Crisis communications managers generally have less formal course-based training and are instead more likely to have worked as journalists or have degrees in communications. The crisis comms manager’s job is much less process-driven.

Companies sometimes make the mistake of assuming that because they have arrangements for a PIO, they don’t need to worry about making other crisis communications plans. This is incorrect.

Make sure that your chosen crisis communications partner can support your company with both PIO and crisis communications manager positions. As you would expect, Navigate Response can fill both roles.

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