So there I was, walking down the hallway of the Courtyard by Marriott in Minneapolis, on my way to attend day one of the 2023 PRSA Public Affairs and Government Summit on June 14-16 in Minneapolis, when my cell phone dings with following text: “Fire, Alert III, Twin, 17-L, ETA: Now.”
Standing about 900 miles away from Centennial Airport, the second-busiest general aviation airport in the United States and my place of employment, I had several thoughts: Who is our Airport Incident Manager (AIM) today? What time is it in Colorado? Am I going to get media calls? Which one of my pre-con advisers can I blame for this ominous moment?
The first three questions are normal, especially when I’m traveling. Like any good public information officer (PIO), I need to know who I am going to be getting information from. In our case, we have several employees who rotate as our AIM so it was really just a matter of checking the calendar and knowing who to text.
It was 6:30 in the morning, so I knew the airport was beginning to wake up and there would be a response. A quick text to our AIM let me know that the fire department quickly responded, and all were safe and accounted for. All’s well that ends well.
The final question I asked myself was a little more specific to the situation. The day before, I had participated in a pre-con training led by Lauri-Ellen Smith, APR, Capt. Brook DeWalt, APR+M, Fellow PRSA, and Lori Croy, APR, that focused on setting up a Joint Information Center (JIC). After a morning of introductions and learning more about what a JIC is and how we can best prepare ourselves to be part of one, we were split into groups for an afternoon exercise.
The topic of our exercise: an airplane has gone off the runway and caught fire. My group looked at me with relief and I began to explain the aviation-specific protocols when it comes to an incident with an aircraft. Without spoiling the ending for anyone who may take this session in the future, it was great to be asked questions as the room’s “expert” on the subject and have others learn about what I do. Many of the questions prompted me to think about things that will make me better in the future when I respond to incidents.
The importance of being prepared
Back to June 14: As part of introductions to the larger group attending the summit, I introduced myself, what my job is and an interesting fact about my position.
“Hi, I’m Chris Thompson, manager of communications and public information officer for Centennial Airport in Englewood, Colo. Something interesting about my job is when the first text I receive in the morning is an aircraft going off the runway and catching fire.”
Of the 100 or so people in the room, about 30 of them began to laugh and I got a number of “No, really?!?” looks from those nearby. I suppose the saying that “Life imitates art” is fitting. Throughout the rest of the summit, I had fellow pre-con participants asking for details and wondering how my response differed to the exercise we had gone through. Others simply called me “the plane crash guy,” which may or may not follow me to other PRSA events.
Despite the coincidence of it all and my confidence to properly respond to an aircraft emergency regardless of my participation in the PRSA PAG Summit, it was a good reminder to myself and others that you never know what the day is going to throw at you and any preparation is better than no preparation at all.
Most public agency PIOs spend their time preparing for the worst and hoping it’s been an entire waste of time. It can be tough to convince our coworkers and superiors just how important it is to be prepared, but that one time that the proverbial (or in my case, literal) plane goes off the runway, being the calm voice in the room who knows how to respond is worth more than gold.
The value of lifelong learning
The remainder of the summit was amazing. I can truly say that I took something away from every speaker and, while I was exhausted at the end of the days, I had a notebook full of ideas to bring back to Colorado and begin working on. As a new PRSA member after beginning my career in college athletics, I told my wife that I got more out of those three days than I have at any other continuing education event that I’ve attended.
I don’t know what my future in PRSA will be. I may find myself in a leadership position someday or I may just be the trusty member who attends summits and conferences, but I do know that I have become a believer in what PRSA can do for me when it comes to continuing education, building my network and believing in myself.
Chris Thompson currently serves as manager of communications and public information officer for Centennial Airport in Englewood, Colo. Previously, he served as assistant commissioner for media relations for the Western Athletic Conference and spent time in the athletic departments at Central Washington University, University of Puget Sound and The Evergreen State College.
[Illustration credit: quality stock arts]