A history of the NIOA
by Foster Arnett, President Emeritus
In 1989, several public information officers got together with the thought of forming a professional association, in an effort to band together. There were smaller associations in other states, but we all realized that no matter where one practiced the noble profession of public information, we all had the same needs, problems and challenges. Following our meeting in the winter of 1989, the National Information Officers Association was born.
In the fall of 1991, forty people came together in Northbrook, Illinois (just outside of Chicago) at a Sheraton Hotel for the first annual training conference. We had no money in the bank (except the registration fee of $200), and we were all strangers.
We were totally apprehensive for two basic reasons: 1) We had no idea if this would work, and 2) with no money in the bank, we had to personally guarantee the expenses to a financial institution with our personal credit.
Topics included a presentation by author Clarence Jones regarding public information, the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo and the University of Florida serial killings. Following that three-day conference, we came away with the realization we were onto a good thing.
As we met to plan our second conference, in Knoxville, we were challenged to make it equally interesting – not only the presentations, but as a totally enjoyable experience for the members. And we were very successful. We heard from Deputy Chief Robert Vernon, LAPD, about the now-infamous Rodney King case. And our keynote speaker was Milwaukee Police Chief Phillip Areola, who brought us keen insight into the newly discovered case involving a young man named Jeffrey Dahmer.
From Knoxville, our group went to Augusta, Georgia, home of The Masters. We were experiencing a slow but steady growth as an organization. Under the watchful eye of Treasurer Lisa McNeal and a very frugal Board of Directors, we started to see our financial situation gain firm footing. The format of the conference was essentially set, and the interaction among our members grew. We heard presentations about media relations in Russia, and a major shooting case at the USC Medical Center, to name a few.
Although Augusta is a small market, out group seemed to enjoy themselves and we had yet another productive and enjoyable conference.
Then came what was considered a “bold move” out West, as we headed off to Albuquerque, New Mexico. There was some concern that if we went west of the Mississippi that we would lose some members. But the Board believed that no matter where we went, as long as members made reservations in time, the air fare wouldn’t be a great concern. What a venue! We were in a brand new property (Hyatt) and the accommodations were outstanding. Conference topics included the Waco standoff with the Branch Davidians, the New York City subway shooting, the fatal crash of an Amtrak train into the murky waters of Mobile Bay, and how to deal with tabloid TV shows.
From Albuquerque we came back to Tennessee, this time to the Music City – Nashville. The Susan Smith case in South Carolina, one of the most emotional murder cases in American history, was presented by those closely involved in it. A presentation was also made on a prison riot at the Lucasville, Ohio penitentiary, where mistakes were made on both sides, by the media and the spokespeople. Our members also heard suggestions on how to prepare for media appearances from the news manager of a Detroit TV station and how to deal with network television crews from ABC News correspondent Erin Hayes.
Next came Virginia Beach. Several of us got to experience our first hurricane, Fran, as she came ashore just south of us. Along with the exciting weather, we heard about a bizarre incident called “The Vampire Case” which took place in Virginia Beach. Because so many of our members were relatively new to the PIO position, we had requests for actual training. So we offered classes in basic information systems and titled the class “PIO 101”. Another topic of great interest was Loss of Media Ethics – a major market news manager spent a session with NIOA members confirming and discussing this growing trend in the media.
From one beach to another, it was on to Clearwater, Florida. We held a beachside reception at night, and during the day we heard from the CEO of ValueJet about the crash of one of his jets in the swamps of Florida. The tragic case of the murder of 6-year old JonBenet Ramsey was discussed by the Boulder PIO and a Denver reporter. And our keynote speaker was James Kallstrom, FBI Assistant Director in Charge of the New York office, who gave an interesting and moving account of the investigation into the crash of TWA Flight 800.
At the 1998 conference in San Antonio, members mixed the sights and sounds of the Riverwalk and the Alamo with informative, educational and emotional general sessions. Our keynote speaker was Sgt. Dan Nichols of the United States Capitol Police, who talked about the emotional experience of having to act as spokesman in a shooting incident where two of his officers died in the line of duty. Other sessions included “Legal Issues for the PIO”, “Joint Information Centers”, “Using the Media To Assist Your Agency” and “When the PIO Becomes the Story”, as well as a presentation on the Plano, Texas Daycare hostage situation.
Our 1999 conference in Norfolk, Virginia was the most well-attended ever, despite Hurricane Dennis, which rolled ashore during our meeting. Our keynote speaker was ATF Director John Magaw, who talked about lessons the ATF has learned in dealing with the media. Separate breakout sessions were held for members of the Fire Service and group presentations were made regarding the school shootings in Springfield, Oregon and Littleton, Colorado, as well as a panel discussion on “The State and Future of Local TV News”.
The new Millennium found the NIOA in Mobile, Alabama for our annual conference. The opening session was excellent: dealing with a hostage situation in Baltimore with presenters from law enforcement and the media. It was an illuminating demonstration on how the media and the police can truly work together. Our second session was interesting and heart-tugging all at the same time. This session dealt with the tragic fire in Worcester, Massachusetts, where many firefighters died. The Chief of the department, who was pressed into service as the PIO (they did not have one at the time) was very compelling in his presentation. There was not a dry eye in the house. Our next topic was Critical Incident Stress and how to handle it as a PIO. Chief Jeff Johnson from Tualitan Valley, Oregon held everyone’s attention with his highly successful presentation on how to market your agency. This was a real crowd-pleaser. Our session on Weapons of Mass Destruction was well received and taught PIOs a bit about WMDs and how to handle the media inquiries they generate. We heard next from our Miami counterparts on the pluses-and-minuses of the Elian Gonzalez case and how the national and international media flooded their city. “Working with the Media” was a popular topic taught by a local television reporter. Very good points were shared by all. We also learned how to build a better web site in Mobile from two of our long-time members. Our last two presentations dealt with cyber information and tools and the PIO can use on a regular basis to make the daily job tasks much easier.
2001 found us back in Clearwater Beach, Florida. What a great place to hold our conferences and that is just one reason Clearwater’s in our permanent rotation now. Our first session was a gripping presentation dealing with the tragic loss of a NASA space vehicle and the national and international attention it brings. How a story evolves was the next presentation to teach PIOs how the news industry creates stories and decides on how to cover them. The next session was very interesting and was delivered by a long-time NIOA member about a ritualistic cult in Virginia Beach, and how the media and police dealt with it. A session in the afternoon about a private hospital’s medical helicopter crashing and killing several people was very educational as well as emotional. Good points were raised about the media’s right to know vs. a patient’s right to privacy….all this before HIPAA was put into law. We also enjoyed a session on how to measure your effectiveness as a PIO. It was an eye-opener that everyone learned from. Of course, the sun, the sand, the Bad Hawaiian Shirt Contest and the parties on the beach hosted by our host, Wayne Shelor, made for a great conference.
We moved well west of the Mississippi for a wonderful time in Reno, Nevada in 2002. Our opening session was the most gripping in our history. The entire morning session was about the events of September 11, 2001. Not only did it bring out everyone’s pride but it was such a unique look at the media and how to handle – or at least attempt to control – what was going on during the worst attack on our nation. Our next session brought presenters from the left coast to talk about the situation with the LAPD. Pre-Incident Planning was a topic we all learned from, whether we had been 20 year PIO veterans, or just starting out. Because of the changing world, we held a session on coordinating Homeland Security communications. The always popular George Doebler from the University of Tennessee Medical Center presented a session on how to stay calm in the middle of a crisis. We wrapped up this conference with a presentation on how to best promote your agency and some of the simple ways to do it.
2003 brought us back to “Music City,” Nashville, Tennessee. We began this conference -as we do each one – with the ever popular PIO 101 course for beginners; it’s always a sell out. Our first general session of 2003 was about the D.C. Sniper Case, and we had folks from the PIO end as well as local, regional and national media making presentations. We had a very interesting presentation on the shooting of a family pet by a state law enforcement agency during a traffic stop, hearing how the media and PIOs handled a touchy subject. Always a good topic was how to use the Internet. Our business luncheon speaker was Air Force Brigadier General James Swanson (Ret.), who gave us a remarkable look at the media imbeds during the Iraq war. We had another emotional and informative session on the space shuttle Columbia explosion. One afternoon session was spent on the new HIPAA regulations and how they effect us all as PIOs. We heard about multi-agency Joint Information Centers during this conference as well. The Laci Peterson murder case and how law enforcement and the media worked on this case was an interesting topic for discussion.
We have definitely come a long way since the first meeting in Northbrook. The NIOA is alive and well and continuing to be a resource to our members. It is so exciting to see how we have grown and to look to the future of the organization.
The NIOA is YOUR organization. We can only be as successful as our membership wants us to be. I look forward each year to meeting old friends at each conference, and I reach out at least once a month to a colleague to ask for advice or support on issues.
If you’re a member, I urge each of you to do the same and become more involved in the NIOA. Let the Board of Directors know of any ideas or suggestions you may have.
If you’re not a member, you should be asking yourself why. Ours is a unique and diverse group, representing law enforcement, fire, emergency services, medical and other public safety oriented organizations. If you’re an information officer who deals with the media on a regular basis, you need to be a member of the NIOA!