Wake Public Safety PIO Consortium and a Conversation with Jeff Hammerstein

On April 20, Wake County EMS Assistant Chief of Community Outreach Jeff Hammerstein conducted the first in a planned series of public information officer (PIO) workshops for Wake County public safety agencies. Called the Wake Public Safety PIO Consortium, it was held at the Garner police station.

The hour-long discussion talked about the typical approach to media interaction among fire, EMS, and law enforcement agencies, and the importance of developing more cooperative working relationships with news-reporting agencies.

Garner Police Department photo

We’ve invited Chief Hammerstein to talk about the workshop, the topic, and himself.

His Background

18558991_10213272916206604_5324445001731592364_o (1)Jeff Hammerstein is a lifelong member of the EMS profession, first as a longtime EMT beginning in 1985 at Garner Rescue Squad, and as paramedic with Wake County EMS since 1988. Over the last twelve years, he’s gained extensive experience working with media on behalf of EMS, and has presented on the topic at a number of EMS-related conferences.

And including as a co-presenter with Yours Truly, on the topic of social media and public information! See those slides.

The second Wake Public Safety PIO Consortium workshop is next week, on Friday, August 4, at 11:30 p.m. The Garner Police Department is again hosting. They’re located at 912 Seventh Avenue. The presenter will be WRAL News Reporter Amanda Lamb. She’ll talk about media perspectives on covering emergency scenes. Contact Jeff for more information, jeffrey.hammerstein@wakegov.com.

Let’s talk with Jeff…

The Conversation

Q: Thanks for participating, Jeff. Tell me about your background in public information, and about your current role.
A: As a field paramedic during the 1990s, I was occasionally assigned to talk to reporters, usually about things like responding in winter weather or the difficulty of navigating traffic on the way to calls…

Q: Chosen for your flat or non-accent, perhaps?
A: Well probably not. I grew up in Indiana and mixed in a North Carolina tone when I got here. People from both states have told me I talk weird!

Q: Ha.
A: But over time, after talking with reporters, I saw how positive the exposure for EMS was, when we were willing to participate in those news stories. And even when they were simple stories about day-to-day practices.

In the early 2000s, I started thinking about the concept of offering up stories for media in addition to just responding to their occasional requests. I felt like the more exposure we received, the more awareness people would have about EMS.

Q: Did it work?
A: It worked great! The benefits of better understanding were enormous, and we didn’t have to just sit back and wait for reporters to come to us.

Around 2005, Chief Kirkwood assigned me the official position of EMS PIO, and we started working on increasing our media exposure. I was a District Chief at the time and assumed the role as an additional duty. In early 2014, a position was developed called Community Outreach. It encompassed special event coordination in addition to PIO and other public relations duties. I currently hold that position as Assistant Chief – Community Outreach.

Q: How many PIOs are there in Wake County, and surrounding areas?
A: It’s really difficult to put a number on PIOs as they relate to emergency services. It is extremely rare that an agency has a dedicated PIO position, although they do exist in Wake County. In most cases, PIO is one of the “other assigned duties,” and it often seems to rotate around to different people over time.

I would say there is probably someone assigned to PIO duties for most law enforcement agencies, municipal fire departments, and other larger fire departments. For smaller agencies, a chief officer usually responds to any media inquiry. But regardless of agency size, a PIO position can be as big and impactful as you make it.

Challenges in the Digital Era

Q: What are some of the challenges these days, in a world where everyone has a phone, can Facebook live broadcast, can post to YouTube from their phones, etc.? First, from the perspective of the responder?
A: Simple. The biggest challenge is for everyone on scene to stay focused on the job at hand and disregard the cellphone cameras. Just ignore them.

Cameras on scene are numerous, and fighting the trend is futile. We can’t stop them, and we have to ask ourselves why should we? In almost every case they have a legal right to record. And as soon as you come off your task and begin to engage them, you personally become the subject of their video. Their footage becomes more entertaining and more valuable to them. But if you stay focused, don’t leave your post, then all they’ll have on camera is you doing your job well.

Q: What happens when that footage also contains disturbing imagery? The distressed victim during patient treatment, the blood or worse during a difficult extrication, the grieving homeowner watching their house burn, etc.?
A: It definitely gets more complicated in those cases, when people are recording sensitive subjects. Those pictures, that footage–and even the act of filming–can draw a negative public reaction, right or wrong. But my opinion is that we’re still likely to add to the problem by engaging them. In those more severe cases, the job that we came to do is critical, and therefore deserving of our complete attention, regardless of who is standing around watching or recording.

The frustration we may feel with onlookers often ties back to the idea of advocating for our patient or the people we’re serving. Protecting them is a noble motivation. But in most cases, the best way to advocate for them is to focus on the interventions we’re trained to provide, and in the case of patients, to minimize their exposure to onlookers.

Q: Protecting exposures, as they say in the fire service.
A: Right. Use personnel or vehicles as a visual barrier if needed. Or drape or hang a sheet between the incident and those watching or filming. The key is that you’re creating a barrier that obstructs a view as opposed to trying to disrupt the person who is recording. Block their view if need be, but leave the person with the camera alone.

The exception is the critical patient. In those cases, your trained medical intervention is far and away the best way you can serve them. Don’t let yourself get lost on that. Don’t cheat the patient of your attention by getting distracted by someone on the periphery. We all make jokes about the one who gets distracted by something shiny. Don’t let a cell phone be the shiny thing that distracts you.

I realize that many law enforcement situations can be much more complex. I can’t really speak to those with authority, and I don’t pretend to. But for the overwhelming majority of EMS and fire incidents–and including those with patients being treated–people with cellphones and cameras should be ignored. Nothing we do will effectively stop or even slow the evolution of personal technology and the impact of social media on our world. Just let it be, and let’s see how we can use it to our advantage.

Taking Over the Story

Q: Here’s a second part to the question about “all this tech,” from the perspective of the PIO, chief officer, or agency head. These personal technologies allow anyone to tell or even “take over the story.” How does that impact your mission?
A: It can have a dramatic positive impact from the administrative perspective. With social media, public safety agencies now have a means to build an audience. They can tell their own story in their own voice. Before social media, traditional media could just “happen to you” with little recourse. They were the editors and content creators. Now any agency can wear those hats, and directly reach “their readers.”

Also, it’s really important to understand that by building relationships with traditional media, you can still be very helpful to your agency. That was true before social media and it’s still true today.

Q: My favorite quote on this subject, from a conference a few years ago: don’t fear the media, become the media.
A: Exactly. We call be the media. Jump in the pool!

With your own social media, you have a powerful means to engage your community yourself. If you feel a news story needs more context, or a completely new direction, you have a voice of your own. But more importantly, you can regularly publish the stories and the information that you feel are important for your community to know about.

Don’t forget that traditional media can follow your agency on social media too. Something may catch their eye, and they could launch your story to a much larger audience. Remember that an agency’s social media reach will almost never compare to the reach of a traditional media outlet. It’s not one or the other. The two go hand in hand.

Use social media to educate your community on who you are and what you really do. Your staff are not mindless machines, and TV and movies don’t always portray you in the right ways. This is an important way to tell your own story.

Q: Social can even reduce the phone calls and e-mails from news reporters, when their questions are preemptively answered in social media postings.
A: That’s true. Probably more so for police and fire when they provide basic information on particular events. It’s more complicated for EMS. We don’t typically do much event reporting because of privacy laws. If we’re lead on an event, or if there is more extensive information for EMS to share about an event, that’s robably better communicated with a live individual. But EMS, like other disciplines, can post on a variety of personnel, equipment, protocol, and tactic information all day long. And I say that with full realization that law enforcement needs a very different approach on talking about, or not talking about tactics.

Q: Law officers seem to be particularly in the public eye. Thoughts there?
A: That appears to be very true, and it’s often regarding extremely complex circumstances that may be very difficult to understand. I think all emergency services must work like never before to help the public gain more understanding of who we are. The more we engage with both traditional and social media, the more voice we have.

Q: What’s the single best tip that you can give, to emergency services agencies, about public information?
A: If your agency is not actively engaged in working with both traditional [e.g. news agencies] and social media, you may be letting immeasurable value slip right through your hands. Take the first step and find out why. Come to our quarterly consortium meetings and hear from others who are experienced on the topic. Or for that matter, call me and we’ll have lunch.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, the things that may frustrate people the most about media are best improved by active engagement and worsened by recoiling away.

The Consortium

Q: Tell me about the consortium.
A: The Wake Area Public Safety PIO Consortium is a forum for gathering and sharing ideas, training together and discussing best practices, and building support networks for each other. The premise is that by continually working to improve our skills, we’ll benefit both the profession and the public alike. Also, this isn’t a model of “us versus them.” We’re not in conflict with either the media or the public. Instead, it’s about raising the tide so all boats lift. To improve the community’s understanding of who we are and what we do, which is enormously beneficial to us.

Q: What’s the schedule of these meetings, and their locations?
A: We meet quarterly over lunch hour. You have to eat, so come eat with us. The August 4 meeting is at the Garner Police Station again, but we’ll be rotating around the county some after that.

Q: Tell me about the first meeting, and what happened.
A: The first meeting in April was hosted by the Garner Police Department. We spent some time talking about the benefits of actively engaging with local media and social media, to develop a philosophical framework to move forward with. We also talked about some of the challenges of media engagement. There are many, which can include determining the right information to share at a given time, and how to be open and cooperative while still withholding the information that’s not appropriate to go out. There may be times, too, when you feel like someone’s looking for a “gotcha” moment. That can be tricky, and it’s probably never useful for the greater good of the community. But that’s not often, and just like our regular jobs, there are good ways to deal with all types of contingencies.

The more we learn from each other, the more effective we become at public information. Just as the more we learn from the media, the more we can mutually benefit each other. That’s the mission of the consortium, and that’s why we’re scheduling local media members to give presentations at our meetings. WRAL News Reporter Amanda Lamb will present at our August 4 meeting.

We need to understand each other. And we also need to develop our own voice through social media. Those are objectives of the consortium.

Q: How many local agencies are using social media, to tell their own stories?
A: That’s a great question, and I haven’t done any real survey of local landscape. Maybe your readers will chime in!

It also sounds like a good project for you, Mike.

Q: Any other thoughts?
A: Public safety involves public funds. We depend on support, and we need the public to understand our capabilities and needs in order to maintain and grow that support. Media interaction is one of the most effective methods of telling our stories and reaching the majority of the community. And you really don’t even need a budget. Just the willingness.

Q: Thanks for conversing!
A: My pleasure, sir.

Wake Area Public Safety PIO Consortium

Lunch Meeting featuring Amanda Lamb, WRAL News
Friday, August 4, 11:30
Garner Police Dept.
912 Seventh Av.

Contact Jeff Hammerstein for more information, jeffrey.hammerstein@wakegov.com

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