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Pressed together.

If you want to understand the collective thinking of American journalism, visit one of the Fourth Estate's many resources. Among the most popular is Poynter Online (, which provides tips and success stories that experienced journalists share with one another in the interminable drive to improve their profession.

Reporters and editors use this valuable source of knowledge to produce better stories, to brainstorm story ideas and to discover innovative methods to unearth stories that seemed impossible to reach. The numerous articles and features are developed by journalists--for journalists.

Journalists aren't the only professionals who can benefit from the wisdom of their peers, however. Those of us working as public information officers also need to leverage our experience with that of our counterparts. Collective knowledge is key to remaining current with trends in both journalism and public relations.

Those of us working in human services have specialized communications needs because the questions and answers we face are often unique. Our job is to educate the public about critical services provided to the most vulnerable citizens in our society. We struggle to educate the media, and thus the public, on how our agencies often work minor miracles to improve lives. We struggle to respond when inevitable crises arise and reporters don't have time to understand the incredible complexity of human service work while operating on tight deadlines.

We struggle with these challenges, but we often struggle separately instead of amassing our collective wisdom to develop the most effective strategies and responses.

Individually, we have a piece of the puzzle to drive awareness of our organizations to new heights. With our collective wisdom, the pieces can become the complete picture we can use to improve our ability to tell our stories and represent our organizations well.

Take the feel-good stories, for example. Major daily newspapers--and even smaller ones--don't reserve regular space for human service education. In an effort to give the public the first, biggest or best of something, ordinary stories about human service success just don't cut it in most newspapers. And without dazzling images, it is difficult for PIOs to attract television news coverage when assignment editors cannot visualize how those stories can connect with their viewers.

Good storytelling can change minds. Just as reporters need to tell good stories to their readers, we have to develop effective pitches to peak their interest in matters important to our organizations and the public. Journalists share this information through resources such as Poynter Online to illustrate "How I got my story." Similarly, human service PIOs can give and get value by showing one another "How I pitched my story." Such information exchange benefits the human service profession because we can share more good stories that the public ought to know.

Now, let's take crisis management. Two days after becoming a human service PIO, I received a call from a major newspaper reporter, informing me that she was working on an in-depth story about a horrible child fatality. The case involved the beating and starvation of a teen-aged girl. My experience as a newspaper reporter was helpful, but it wasn't enough to produce the ideal response. The resulting stories were not pretty, and my agency did not fare well.

Had I known then what I have learned since--including from my peers--I would have done a more effective job of representing my agency through that crisis. Even with experience, it's always helpful to bounce ideas off others in the profession. Collective wisdom helps to ensure that our communications compasses are correctly calibrated and provides a resource when daily challenges come our way.

The APHSA PIO group ( on the Internet presents a networking opportunity for those of us serving as public information officers for human service agencies. We have the opportunity to communicate in real time about challenges, although we have yet to explore the potential of this resource.

In addition, we are making good use of the conference call, which brings human service PIO minds together to address contemporary media matters such as the second round of Child and Family Services Reviews.

We can take these efforts a step further by establishing an affiliate within APHSA to bring together public information officers working for state, county and local agencies. The PIO affiliate would help us network and share information. It would help communicators improve the image of our human service agencies--and human services in general.

You will hear more about plans for the PIO affiliate in the months to come, and public information officers need to be part of those plans.

When human service PIOs come together and discuss our common concerns, we can match the collective media muscle and do a better job of telling our stories.

Norris West was the director of communications at the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
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Title Annotation:communications corner
Author:West, Norris
Publication:Policy & Practice
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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