PIOs tell how it’s done

With the state facing a huge budget shortfall, this may not seem like a great time to be looking for a state job. But there are a few job classifications that the California government is still looking to fill, and public information officers are near the top of that list.

Right now, the state is offering the PIO exam. The application deadline is Feb. 1, with three separate classifications available with annual incomes ranging from $52,800 to $76,900 a year. Even better, at least for some, is that the state especially wants applications from people with the traditional career albatross: a college English degree.

A few weeks ago, four of the state’s most experienced PIOs gathered at the State Library Building to explain what these jobs involve and how to get them. Roni Java, the immediate past president of the State Information Officers Council, kicked things off with a warning.

“It’s a tough job, very fast-paced,” she said. “And I really hope you like public speaking, because you’ll be doing a lot of it.”

Java, whose day job is at the Integrated Waste Management Board, went on to give the audience three other important nuggets — “Tip of the day: Never speculate;” “key phrase: ‘I’ll get back to you;’” "key skill: Learn to work on a shoestring.”

Sigrid Bathen, a California State University Sacramento communications professor and former spokeswoman for the Fair Political Practices Commission, echoed many of these thoughts — particularly the part about not speculating.

“Even minor fudging of the facts will come back to haunt you,” Bathen warned.

A good PIO knows the media very well, she said. They’ll know the human side and visual elements to suggest to reporters, they’ll have relationships with them “before the story breaks,” and they’ll be intimately familiar with the trade and specialized media that cover their agency. A modern PIO also needs to know the new Internet and communications technologies — many agencies make extensive use of YouTube to get out information — but not use them as a crutch.

“The job has changed, but the necessary skills have not,” Bathen said.

One thing that has changed is a national case of attention deficit disorder. Now more than ever, PIOs need to know their points, stick to them, avoid jargon and have an accurate grasp of “who does what,” said Sarah Dalton, the new president of SIOC.

“People used to have the attention of a medfly; now they have the attention span of a gnat,” Java warned.

Perhaps the only person in the room who could distinguish between the two flies was Steve Martarano of the Department of Fish and Game. He talked about one of the biggest comeback stories in state PIO history: the Lake Davis pike debacle.

In 1997, invasive northern pike were found in Lake Davis in the Sierra foothills. Hoping to keep the big, carnivorous fish from getting loose and devastating fish stocks in the entire San Joaquin River system, the DFG poisoned the lake.

This action fell short of praise from citizens in the nearby town of Portola. “Fish & Game Burn in Hell!” was one sign that Martarano remembered seeing around town. The mood toward the state agency was so hostile that hungry DFG employees were refused service from local restaurants.

So when the pike reappeared a few years later, DFG officials embarked on a very different path, Martarano said. They explored options besides poison, engaged the local community and leaders, and coordinated their information releases to fit the news cycle of the weekly newspaper, the Portola Reporter.

In the end, they resorted to poisoning the lake again. But reaction by local residents had changed.

“They burned a pike in effigy,” Martarano said.

One thing the experienced PIOs couldn’t discuss at length was what content is actually on the exam. Java said there typically is an oral or job interview portion and a written portion, including a timed writing exercise.

Despite skeptical questions from some audience members, it appears the state really does want to hire PIOs — in fact, the state is offering the exam ahead of schedule. Since the late 1980s, the PIO exam has only been offered four times, but the application deadline is near, only a year and a half since the last exam in 2006.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” Dalton said, “but we’ve been through hiring freezes before.”

Java also said the test is a pretty good indication of what life can sometimes be like on the job. She said she took her writing test in the 1980s in a tiny room with two other applicants — both men who were sweating profusely.

“This is not a glamorous job,” Java said.

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