Large scale Search and Rescue operations are rare and present interesting challenges for the agency in charge. One of those challenges is the role of the public information officer, or PIO.
To quote from ICS Canada’s description
The Information Officer is responsible for interfacing with the public and media and with other agencies with incident-related information requirements. The Information Officer assembles accurate, accessible, and complete information on the incident’s cause, size, and current situation; the resources committed; and other matters of general interest for both internal and external audiences.
For Search and Rescue teams in BC, the role of the PIO may fall to a member of the SAR team. It’s my contention that one of the most useful tools for the PIO is social media, and I have some simple guidelines here based on several large searches I’ve managed.
Use a web site
For a small incident a PIO can use social media to post information about the ongoing search, but it is impossible to tell when a search is going to be big. Having a plan ready for when a search may escalate is important.
Once a search moves into the second operational period, the PIO should create a post on a public web site describing the ongoing search. The effect of this post is identical to a press release. Guidelines for such a post include:
- date of the post
- clear descriptive language
- no speculation
- information about the missing person as released by the local tasking agency
- details on the efforts of the SAR team, and the agencies participating in the event
- no assignment of blame to the subject of the search
- quotes from members of the command staff and the tasking agencies if possible
- links to the tasking agency’s releases as well
- who to contact for more information
It should be stressed that a single point of contact for the team should be established and maintained for the entire search if possible. If not, a single number or email address. Worst case scenario is when there a multiple channels to contact the PIO; checking each of these and responding can be a chore.
Once the post is created, disseminate the information via social media; a quick description of the event, followed by the link to the post on the web site. “Mentioning” local media on social media, particularly Twitter, will help them to find the post.
Media and the public can read the social media, click the link for in depth information, and re-share at will. Media will often use the press release format and images posted directly in news broadcasts and in print.
When the press are very interested in a story, it can rapidly become of regional, national, or international interest. They will want live interviews, and footage (video) of the event. The PIO should organize press conferences. We recommend twice a day; in the AM, and again in the PM of the operational period. The AM conference should be before noon, and the afternoon conferences should be before the evening news cycle. One suggestion is 10AM and 4PM.
If possible the same representative should be present at each conference. That person should be aware of previous such conferences and the information posted on the web site.
The original web site post should be updated every six to eight hours, or as major events unfold in the search.
Do NOT create a new post. This is important because old information is misinformation. Update the original post with new information. Be sure to clearly indicate the date of the last update. Updates should include
- short summary of events to date
- current efforts
Once updated, the link should be reposted to social media with an updated short description.
On most searches near a large urban area, and for large searches in particular, the media’s mandate is to inform the public. Their secondary mandate is commercial, and Search and Rescue stories can be exciting; life and death in the balance, brave rescuers, helicopters, etc. Media will become very interested in a big search. The longer it goes on, the more interest there will be.
If you do not give the media something to report on, they will send reporters to find out more information. This can disrupt the search by tying up phone lines with requests for information. They will rely on secondary, and less reliable sources for information – some of which may be correct, and some may be only partially correct. It is important to establish your agency or your tasking agency as the definitive source for information about the ongoing task.
A secondary rationale for taking control of the media situation is to maintain control of the message. In several instances SAR groups have been overwhelmed by members of the public volunteering to assist them on a task. This can happen spontaneously, or through rumours that the SAR team “needs help”. By getting un front of the message you can take control of rumours, and divert volunteer resources if you feel that they will not be necessary.
By posting information on a regular basis, and holding press conferences, you will reduce the overall disruption to the task. It might seem like any effort directed at informing the public is “wasted” because it does not go toward finding the subject, but this is definitely not the case; if you try to “lock out” the media, the disruption can be much worse than that caused by regular, and informative updates.
Finally, by maintaining a single definitive web post, anyone sharing previously posted social media updates will always have a link to the most up to date information.
Since large scale searches are rare, I think it’s important to take advantage of any tools possible to lighten the load that will be placed on a SAR group responding to such an incident. Social Media is not something to be afraid of in this respect. One of the goals of your SAR agency is to establish it’s professional presence on the internet and on social media channels so that in the event of a large incident you’re ready to use those tools to disseminate timely, informative, and most importantly, correct information on the progress of a search.
As always I would love to hear feedback and suggestions from those who’ve experienced a large incident and how they dealt with it. Thanks for reading.