In an emergency situation, it is of utmost importance for public information officers to get the right information to the right people at the right time.
Teresa Abram is marketing and communications director at Great Plains Technology Center, 4500 SW Lee Blvd. In an emergency situation, it is her job to help coordinate, inform and calm down when appropriate and necessary.
“Children spend 70 to 80 percent of waking hours at schools,” Abram says. “It is paramount to keep them safe. Before, during and after an incident, coordinated and timely communication to the public is critical. Effective communication can save lives, property, helps provide credibility and builds trust. And the better prepared we are, the more efficient we are.”
Abram, who describes herself as “fascinated with crisis and emergency communication,” wanted to elevate her own emergency communication skills to the next level. She decided to complete the Master Public Information Officer Program, which is a three-course series offered by the Emergency Management Institute (EMI) of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). While Abram graduated in September 2021, she didn’t receive her certificate until earlier this year.
At the time of her graduations, she was one of only three in Oklahoma and less than 100 individuals in the United States to have completed this course.
The program prepares public information officers for an expanded role in delivering public information and warning, using a strategic whole community approach, according to FEMA’s website. It took place at the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Md.
In order to be accepted into the Master Public Information Officer program, Abram had to submit two recommendation letters from her direct supervisor and the superintendent of Great Plains Technology Center.
“As a school, we take safety and security very seriously and are committed to school safety preparation and mitigation, as well as any potential response,” Abram said. “My training for crisis communication is testament to that commitment. The training wouldn’t have been possible without the superintendent’s permission and support.”
Before enrolling in the master program, Abram also had to complete the Advanced Public Information Officer course, which teaches basic principles of the role Abram would have in representing her organization in a Joint Information Center (JIC) during an emergency event.
“In the JIC, the dissemination of timely, accurate, accessible and actionable information is vital,” Abram explains. “The system provides processes and procedures to ensure different agencies work together toward the same goal of getting the right information to the right people at the right time so they can make the right decisions.”
Public information officers also are involved in the Incident Command System.
“PIOs are key members of the ICS,” Abram says. “The PIO advises the incident commander as well as other key personnel related to the incident management.”
While the Advanced Public Information Officer course taught the basics, the Master Public Information Officer course went deeper and broader, Abram says.
“As a result of my training, I learned the importance of emergency mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Additionally, I was part of the Oklahoma Virtual JIC for COVID-19. As part of that experience, I was able to learn critical information and disseminate it to my organization, as well as to community leaders from across Southwest Oklahoma. Although we are not currently active, the JIC remains in place.”
Another requirement for graduation from the master program was writing a final academic paper. Abram chose the topic school safety.
“I spent months on that paper,” she says. Eventually, she ended up with 36 pages.
The training provided Abram with a “wonderful basis” to develop a crisis communication plan for her employer, the Great Plains Technology Center.
“It’s important to have an emergency plan and practice it,” Abram says. “It’s great we have this, so we can be prepared ahead of time.”
Abram stresses the importance to get a coherent and consistent message out to the public. Sometimes, she explains, you wouldn’t want to release all information available. The crisis communication plan, she says, should not be a compliance document, but taken seriously.
“We actually review it and make changes,” she says.
For example, Abram recently added a form on social media monitoring that allows for collecting information spread on social media, therefore being able to react more effectively to rumors.
At the heart of the communications plan are several so-called message maps, a sort of template that allows for “quick fill in the blank” messages that can be sent out as fast and efficiently as possible, at the same time offering consistent language and informational content, even if Abram is not in office and somebody else has to take over.
“God forbid” if any of these documents had to ever be used, Abram says. But if so, she wants to be prepared.