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Public Information Officers are the messengers for government agencies, municipal departments and large public institutions such as hospitals and universities. Although most visible in times of crisis or a big news event, PIOs work continuously behind the scenes so they're ready to act on a moment's notice. They often work extended hours, including weekends and evenings during busy news times.
As the job title suggests, a public information officer is the public face of an organization. She plans and holds press conferences to announce major news or provide essential information in a crisis. She also decides how much information to release, answers on-the-spot questions when possible, and provides updates as developments change. Sometimes this requires the PIO to travel to a crisis or event site without much advance notice. She must coordinate details with staff and superiors there and present the information clearly and calmly to the public and news media.
Press releases, speeches, brochures, briefs, fact sheets and other literature are often written by the PIO, though larger organizations might have an assistant do much of the writing. In the latter case, the PIO reviews and edits the work to ensure that messages are consistent, information is accurate and policies are followed throughout all pieces. Data and materials must be kept up-to-date so they can be distributed in a timely manner when needed.
PIOs are responsible for developing guidelines for disseminating information and outlining procedures to follow in a crisis. These guidelines should be reviewed periodically to include changes in the organization that can affect the release of information, such as new department personnel who must be consulted or more advanced equipment that can be used in a crisis. Updates should also include changes to information channels to reflect rapidly changing technology. For examples, PIOs must stay on top of emerging social media that more people are using as a way to receive news quickly.
Part of a PIO's ongoing job is to establish good working relationships with the media and the public and to maintain those relationships by answering queries promptly, arranging interviews or speakers when requested and being a familiar and involved presence at community events. A hospital PIO might organize a free public health fair, for example, while a police department PIO might create goodwill by talking to children at school assemblies. A wise PIO also establishes good relationships in-house so other departments understand the need to address the public and are willing to help when asked.
Skills and Requirements
Most PIOs have at least a bachelor's degree in business, communications, marketing or a related field plus five or more years of relevant experience. Sometimes a PIO might have less experience in a public information type of position, but more experience in the industry or organization. For example, someone who has worked in a police department for many years understands its operations and terminology and might be able to move to the PIO position. Ideal candidates are excellent oral and written communicators and can remain calm and professional under stress. They should also be good team players who can adapt to new situations quickly and mobilize others to do the same.
Barbara Bean-Mellinger is an award-winning writer in the Washington, DC area. She writes nationally for newspapers, magazines and websites on topics including careers, education, women, marketing, advertising and more. She holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Pittsburgh.