Varying Responsibilities of PIOs

Given the myriad of complexities that come into play when we are responding to an incident, it should come as no surprise that the function of a Public Information Officer (PIO) during incident response is different than that of the PIO during daily routine operations.

On a day-to-day basis, the PIO’s overarching function is to inform and educate key publics about missions, operations, activities, policies and position on issues important to them. When done effectively, an informed and educated public translates to a public who supports and understands the value of the services that PIO’s specific organization/agency/department provides. On routine issues, the PIO can assist in communicating long-term, long range goals and objectives of a higher order, such as business growth or emerging markets.

In contrast, the incident response PIO’s role is to support a specific incident response or operation with the primary function of communicating timely, accurate, and accessible information on the incident’s cause, size, and current situation to the public, responders, and other affected stakeholders. Representing Command (Unified or Single), regardless of home office or agency, the incident response PIO’s function does not involve building support and understanding for a specific office or department, rather it supports the coordinated response effort and all entities involved. The table below provides a comparison:

The incident response PIO is a critical component of the overall Joint Information System (JIS). PIOs typically work as part of the Command Staff of an ICS organization, though they may also be assigned to elements of the Multiagency Coordination System (MACS) or other elements of the JIS, such as a Joint Information Center (JIC). The JIS makes reference to a system that organizes, integrates, and coordinates public information activities to ensure timely, accurate, and consistent release of information across the entire geographic and operational range of an incident response.

The JIC is the hub of a JIS – a physical or virtual location where public information responsibilities are managed during an incident or event. The JIC structure is designed to work equally well for large or small incidents and can expand or contract to meet the needs of the incident. Managing communication resources centrally minimizes duplication of efforts, as well as instances in which key responsibilities are overlooked.
Federal, State, tribal, local, and voluntary agencies, private sector PIOs, and established JICs are critical supporting elements of the JIS. Key elements include the following:

  • gathering, verifying, coordinating, and disseminating consistent messages
  • interagency coordination and integration
  • support for decision-makers
  • flexibility, modularity, and adaptability

Each individual JIC position represents a narrowly focused area of responsibility that, when added together, represent the overall responsibilities of the PIO. Within the JIC, there can be several types of incident response PIOs, including:

  • Assistant PIO/JIC Manager
  • Assistant PIO for Information Gathering
  • Assistant PIO for Information Products
  • Assistant PIO for Media Relations
  • Assistant PIO for Community Relations

Simply stated, the PIO and JIC are critical elements to any response, as they not only help to educate the public on response efforts, but help to shape the narrative of any response. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, Incident Commanders and Unified Commands can ill afford to allow an information vacuum where rumor and innuendo fill the gaps.