EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation — August 27, 2008

Breaking News
An Emergency Responder's Guide to the Media

Russell J. Decker, CEM®
Allen County (Ohio) Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A text transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: Good morning/afternoon everyone. Welcome to the Virtual Forum! My associate, Avagene Moore is traveling this week, but Lori Wieber is here today to back me up. We are pleased you could join us today, including our first-timers.

Our topic today is "Breaking News: An Emergency Responder's Guide to the Media." This is the title of a soon-to-be-published book written by today's guest.

There is a related poll/survey question on our home page, "In a radiological event, who would be your spokesperson?: a)Fire Chief/HazMat IC b) PIO/Public Affairs c) Public Health Director d) Chief Elected Official." Please take a moment after our session to respond if you have not voted already, and review the results to date.

Now to introduce our guest. Russell J. Decker is the Director of the Allen County (Ohio) Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management. He has been with the agency since 1990, serving as Director since 1998. Mr. Decker currently serves as first vice president for the International Association of Emergency Managers and will serve as the group's president in 2008-2009. In June 2007, he was appointed to the 30-member National Advisory Council for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Co-author of the book Homeland Security: Handbook for Citizens and Public Officials (McFarland & Co., 2006), and published author of numerous articles in professional and trade magazines, Mr. Decker will have his first full book published in 2008, the subject of our Forum today. Prior to becoming an emergency manager, Russ spent fifteen years as a practicing journalist at the local, regional and national levels, providing him with a unique perspective from "both sides of the microphone."

Please see the Background Page for additional biographical details. Welcome Russ and thank you for being with us today. I now turn the floor over to you to start us off please.


Russ Decker: Thanks Amy, it’s great to be here. After more than a decade as a broadcast journalist, and now with nearly twenty years in emergency management and public safety, I have found that many emergency managers discover that effectively communicating with the news media can be a major challenge. With the unique perspective of having been on "both sides" of the microphone I put together a collection of helpful hints to assist you in improving your relationships with the media. My book, Breaking News: A First Responder’s Guide to the Media, is scheduled for release in early 2009 from CSS Publishing.


It is critical to develop relationships with your local news media right now, when there isn’t an emergency. Meeting a reporter for the first time in the middle of an incident is not the right moment to attempt an ongoing dialogue. By coordinating meetings with local reporters now – not while on the "hot seat" – you’ll have an opportunity to talk about issues that are important to you, such as how your agency functions, your role in emergency management and ways that you can assist the media in accessing important information during an emergency.

The media is one of the best resources you can have for disseminating important, time-sensitive information quickly and efficiently to the public at-large. After establishing rapport with the local reporters, it’s important to assure your accessibility. Many reporters look for local "experts" to help with background information and lend unique perspectives to national or regional news stories. Often times they need this input after hours or on weekends. Even though these stories may not directly involve you or your jurisdiction, offering your expertise proves that you are a valuable resource. By doing this, you are also refining your media-relations skills in a non-threatening setting.

While it is important for you to remain accessible to the press, you also need to develop your own list of after-hour contact information for reporters and their news organizations. Remember, very few emergencies occur on weekdays during normal business hours. When an incident happens, you want to be able to access the media immediately. It is much more effective to be on the offensive in releasing information during an emergency that simply responding to media inquiries after the fact.


Remember that your encounters with the media are not personal. The reporter assigned to your story is simply working on an assignment – nothing more. If you’ve established rapport with the reporter in advance, the meeting will be a bit more comfortable. If you have never met, this is an opportunity to create a great first impression and convey your message effectively and positively.

Most reporters have no connection to the stories they are assigned; therefore you are the subject matter expert. Be prepared to speak authoritatively on the topic, and offer to provide useful background information that will help the reporter put the story in perspective.

For instance, today’s train crash may be a major event, but it can be reassuring to know that responders prepare for this type of emergency on an ongoing basis. In fact, point out the last time responders trained on the issues related to today’s event, and how much more devastating the event could have been without such preparation.

If the incident continues for several days, make certain that your Public Information staff is working to find new and unique topics related to the incident that can be shared with reporters. This process helps keep the story fresh, and again, provides the opportunity you need to remain on the offensive rather than in a defensive mode.

Here are some basic rules that can help you avoid controversy when interacting with the news media:

  • "No comment" is NOT an option
  • Never lie
  • Never speculate – tell only what you know
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so, and offer to find the answer and to get back to them
  • Never make promises
  • Never comment on topics or issues beyond your area of control, expertise, and/or influence


Most often, the reality is that your interaction with the press will not be at a press conference during an emergency, but rather as a one-on-one experience dealing with a less time-sensitive matter. Many of these encounters will have been at your suggestion through the issuance of a press release. So let’s look at how to improve your efficiency when preparing and issuing press releases.

First, ask yourself a couple of basic questions: Is the subject of your press release newsworthy? If not, why are you preparing a release? Is your media listing current? Nothing is worse than sending a press release to a media organization or reporter who has changed names or jobs. It shows that you are out of the loop and not very media savvy. If you’ve decided to go forward with writing and issuing a press release, here are a few important tips:

  • Keep the press release to a single page. If your draft is longer than one page, edit, edit, edit.

  • Check your spelling and grammar. It’s always a good idea to have a second or third set of eyes proofread your release before it goes out.

  • Know your local news media deadlines. Be sure to allow an appropriate amount of time for follow up by reporters from the time you issue the release until their next broadcast or print deadline. (Keep in mind that many broadcast stations are now automated, thus unmanned, on weekends.)

  • Make certain to date your release and include a contact name and phone number.

Remember that when you issue a press release that it is an attempt to convince a local news director or editor that the subject of your release is worthy of allocating time and money to cover. There are a limited number of stories to cover each day and the competition to become one of those stories is intense. In fact, most local newsrooms will receive more than fifty press releases every day for consideration. Only a handful will be successful.

If your releases are presented in a professional manner, the subject matter is interesting and you’ve developed a positive working relationship with your local reporters, then the likelihood of your success in enhanced.

With that introduction, I look forward to viewing your questions and furthering this brief conversation about the media. I now turn the discussion back over to today's moderator.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Russ. Now, to proceed to your questions or comments.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Kim Carsell: Russ, do you have suggestions on how to best "connect early"?

Russ Decker: I recommend calling your news outlets and asking who covers your agency on their "beat", then invite that person to visit your office, meet in person and give them a brief overview of your agency. This goes great over a cup of coffee.

Trudy Jenzer: Which of today's technologies are most important for PIOs to use to maximize media relations (given that technology capabilities vary by jurisdiction)?

Russ Decker: Although most reporters are used to receiving things electronically, I still recommend coupling that with use of faxes. Faxes are a key way of gaining info in most newsrooms across the country.

Ken Doige: Russ, how would you suggest dealing with the issue where the media is not reporting accurately and is affecting your organization’s credibility?

Russ Decker: Excellent question. First, you need to see if the reporter knows the info is not correct. If not, a gentle nudge can go a long way. If they are aware, then you may need to utilize the other media sources to correct their error, but NEVER mention the error per se.

Cha-Ron Taylor: Why never mention the error?

Russ Decker: You can mention that some inaccurate information was circulated, but don't mention a particular news outlet that made the mistake. I wasn't very clear.

Roop Dave: Can we consider media as one of the resource in " emergency response"? Currently, media often is considered as a liability and not a resource.

Russ Decker: I think viewing the media as a liability is a big mistake. I consider them a valuable tool in my toolbox for getting information to the public.

Christie Holmgren: For those who may get impromptu questions from the media during an emergency, it's very important that you know your organization's media policy and have received spokesperson training.

Russ Decker: Yes, speaking with a common voice is important. Select PIOs or spokespersons who want the job; NEVER force it on someone.

Isabel McCurdy: Russ, how often should one touch base with reporters in maintaining rapport? Any helpful hints?

Russ Decker: I try to interact with my local reporters at least once a quarter. You can usually find a topic of interest--tornado season, winter storms, etc.

Roop Dave: Public information dissemination is crucial during extreme incidents as nothing works--no TV, radio, nothing. Do you feel media has any supportive role during "total blackouts" during extreme incidents, with no power, no telecom, no roads, no transport?

Russ Decker: Yes, eventually the lights do go back on and you need to have been keeping the media in the loop. Also, many media outlets have generators, so while their reach may be reduced, they are still getting the word out to some folks.

Amy Sebring: Russ, the question above mentioned media policy. I find that sometimes these policies are not written with disasters and emergencies in mind. Do you recommend getting policy clarification perhaps?

Russ Decker: I believe that when it comes to emergencies or disasters, policies need to more like guidelines; they need to flexible enough to allow your PIO to be effective in getting your message out.

Ed Call: Russ, do you have recommendations on creating energy through follow ups after your local media has dropped the ball on working with EM staff to create PSA's and brief tutorials for the public? These are for normal conditions, to keep the public aware, not for incidents specifically.

Russ Decker: Public Service Announcements (PSAs) are a whole different ball game. I do address them in the book, but remember--PSAs are simply free ads on radio and TV. You need to make sure you have plenty of lead time and that they get in front of the right folks at the radio and TV station. In most cases, the newsroom has no connection with PSAs. That will be the traffic department instead.

Luiz Bisacchi: Russ, do you know of any recent developments concerning position certification for PIOs e.g., for Incident Management Teams (IMTs)?

Russ Decker: No I don't, but it would be a move in the right direction. The training offered at EMI and other places is wonderful and certification seems the next logical step

Roger Fritzel: An AP story 22 Aug said in a command center at the current Democrat National Convention, 62 agencies are represented, intending to participate in an emergency there. Assuming they use NIMS, what is the threshold where agency representative overload sets in?

Russ Decker: I personally know a lot of the folks working the EOC in Denver this week, and next week in the Twin Cities as well. They are definitely using NIMS and ICS in their organization.

Bob Armstrong: Russ, Local vs. National. During a large event that draws national media, do you try to give preference to either one?

Russ Decker: No preference; however, national will need a little extra babysitting. When an event reaches this point, your PIO staff should increase as well. I recommend assigning deputy PIOs to every major organization--NBC, CBS, AP, etc.--as well as keeping your locals in the loop. Your locals can be a great help in working with the network partners.

Kim Carsell: Do you have a method, other than connecting once per quarter, of keeping track of who your media contacts are (since we don't want to disseminate info to someone who is no longer there)?

Russ Decker: I simply talk with reporters informally and out of the office every opportunity I get. They will normally keep you abreast of what's happening in their shop, as well as the other outlets in town.

Chip Sturgis: Russ, South Carolina, like several other states are working on PIO networks statewide for training and we are trying to enhance training certifications on the local level, in addition to fleshing out our JIC procedures during a full scale exercise. What advice would you offer?

Russ Decker: Coordination and sharing of resources and personnel is excellent, especially in the area of training and exercises. The more you prepare for the big event, the more the big event will not overwhelm your PIO staff when it happens!

Dianne Walbrecker: Back to certification, I know that EMI is working on certification for positions in connection with position task books they have written over the last year and a half. It should be pilot tested soon.

Russ Decker: I would welcome such a pilot. I can say that as a member of the National Advisory Council, and chair of its NIMS Subcommittee, we have not been briefed about any pilots soon to be launched.

Alan Covey: How about letting media inside the lines, inside the EOC or Field EOC, to let people see the pros handling a situation? Security concerns?

Russ Decker: This is a tough one. If you can do it safely, without upsetting command, and without creating more problems for public safety, why not? A good alternative to consider is always the use of a media "pool" representative to go inside.

Christian Seklecki: If one were to write a case study about how a particular Emergency Operation Center worked well during an emergency, do you have any recommendations for how to do so?

Russ Decker: I don't have a particular EOC in mind, but I would look at the Iowa floods, for example. Their coverage and use of the media seems to have been very effective.

Ron Swartz: Law enforcement tactics and victim/family privacy are two issues of concern when considering having media in an EOC

Russ Decker: Yes, I'm not a big fan of media in the EOC, unless players in the EOC are briefed ahead of time, and the EOC can be made ready for the press.

Alan Covey: Related to an earlier question, some media will always be available for you to get your message through to. Go outside your locality, with the idea of getting your message to come back into your jurisdiction. When a hurricane hit an adjacent area, they sent message to our radio and TV stations, with the hope that folks in the zone would be watching SOMETHING and might pick up messages.

Russ Decker: I believe you have to utilize every avenue at your disposal--radio, TV, internet, text messages--whatever you can access.

Katherine: Contacting media individuals via e-mail and fax is a nice personal touch, but individuals leave or go on vacation. Is it best to build a media contact list to general newsroom?

Russ Decker: That's why the faxes are a good source; most newsrooms get the majority of their new releases through that method. But, of course, any method you can develop locally should be used. It's a great conversation topic for one of your meetings with the media.

Chip Sturgis: A steering committee of the Palmetto Alliance of Public Information Officers in South Carolina is trying to develop a statewide rapid response team to assist smaller counties with limited resources or anyone during a lengthy incident.

Russ Decker: We've done a similar thing here in Ohio. It can be a great help, especially in areas like PIO and media logistics, etc.

Alan Covey: North Carolina PIO's are looking at similar certification and response-sharing arrangements.

Trudy Jenzer: What about using websites--your own agency website and media websites? What has been your experience/what is your advice?

Russ Decker: Sharing resources in today's world is the only way to go.

Michael Lewis: Another example was during the wildfires in So. Calif. The information was routinely being shared, and posted via any and all available means of distribution, including media, webpages, bulletin boards, briefings, etc. The website they had produced was quite robust.

Russ Decker: Yes, the CA fires are an excellent example.

Amy Sebring: Russ, are there any special considerations for print media? We have been mostly talking about broadcast media.

Russ Decker: Keep in mind the print deadlines. Also, remember print may need a little more lead time than broadcast in non-time sensitive releases. Also, always think "photo ops" for both print and TV. Also, remember that many newspapers are now using breaking news stories on their websites. So in many ways they can get info out in the same quick manner as their broadcast counterparts.

Alan Covey: Print can handle larger volumes of specific information, feeding sites, shelter lists, what to bring to a shelter, long-range recovery issues. But don't forget they need timely info too.

Russ Decker: No argument here.

Chip Sturgis: Russ, has anyone investigated products like First Alert Systems Text (FAST) to distribute weather or other warnings? My county has begun using it with great success. Subscribers have to pay for it on their cell phone bill.

Russ Decker: Yes, it's technology that is just getting started as a common practice. DHS and FEMA are putting a lot of time and attention into this technology and looking at ways to make it practical across the nation.

Amy Sebring: Russ, speaking of technology, I understand the emergence of blogging and the blogosphere represents some new challenges. Any experience or advice on this issue?

Russ Decker: The problem with bloggers is that they have no accountability. You need to be careful when and if you include them as your regular press during an event.

Roop Dave: Does reliability increases with print media?

Russ Decker: I think for the most part, professional news organizations try to be responsible and reliable. There are always exception, but the news media in this country provides an important service, especially as information providers in times of emergency.

Amy Sebring: You mentioned photo ops above. Do you find having ready made graphics as well as "backgrounders" useful?

Russ Decker: I'm glad you brought up backgrounds. Please remember that anytime you have video or still photos being taken have someone from your PIO staff look at exactly what the cameras will see. Avoid things that are incident sensitive, or could be seen as inappropriate or uncaring. An example is bodybags in the background, the coroner's car, etc.

Amy Sebring: My biggest frustration was the turnover in our smallish media market. Newbies all the time, with no community history. I suppose you just have to deal with it and fill them in?

Russ Decker: Yes, turnover in small and midsize markets can be an issue. Unfortunately, it simply means that you have to work even harder to meet and inform a new set of folks on an ongoing basis. I have to do that here in my county.

Katherine: What about emergency preparedness reminder releases? How often should these be put to the media in times of non-emergency? Or should media be used at all?

Russ Decker: This is the place for PSAs, and an ongoing campaign that is probably seasonal makes sense.

Ed Call: Back to citizen alert technology, Kitsap County as been using PIERS and encouraging all citizens, responders and public officials to enroll. It has been used with pretty good results thus far.

Alan Covey: Our city and county are using ConnectCTY to push info. Great resource with lots of positive feedback so far, as long as you don't "cry wolf" too many times.

Luiz Bisacchi: Re: "Letting the media in..." I would probably consider it on a case-by-case basis. If you have a big incident going, the nerves will be boiling and people might say things they wouldn't want their mother to hear, etc. There will be heated discussions, etc. The last thing you want the media to do is spread the word that people in the command post (whatever/wherever it is) are fighting against themselves and nothing appears to be getting accomplished. Just a quick food-for-thought.

Russ Decker: Remember, every microphone should be considered to be "ON" and every camera loaded and taking photos.

Amy Sebring: Russ, in some places there may be an issue with a Chief Elected Official wanting to be the spokesperson on everything. Our County Judge has gone so far as designating himself as the PIO. Any tips on dealing with your officials?

Russ Decker: Sometimes they might be great PIOs. Bottom line is you can't stop elected officials from doing and saying what they want. You can only provide them guidance about what has been proven as effective and useful.

Amy Sebring: So your briefing of your official can be just as important as what you tell media directly?

Russ Decker: Absolutely, and remember, in many cases, it will be the PIO who also does the elected officials brief if the Incident Commander is tied up running operations.


Amy Sebring: Time to wrap for today. Thank you very much Russ for an excellent job. We wish you great success with your book, and also for your year ahead as IAEM President!

Russ Decker: Thanks, it's been fun.

Amy Sebring: And thanks to all our participants for great questions and comments. Please stand by just a moment while we make a couple of quick announcements. Again, the formatted transcript will be available later today. If you are not on our mailing list and would like to get notices of future sessions and availability of transcripts, just go to our home page to Subscribe. And please take a moment to do the rating!

Our next session will be September 10th when our topic will be AidMatrix. This is a new network for the coordination of private sector donations under a Cooperative Agreement with FEMA.

Thanks to everyone for participating today, and we wish you a safe and enjoyable Labor Day Weekend. We stand adjourned but before you go, please help me show our appreciation to Russ for an excellent job.