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Public Information Officer Career Overview

April 28, 2023

Crisis can spark confusion, worry and fear. Global pandemics, natural disasters and similar unexpected events take a huge toll, threatening communities both physically and emotionally. An effective communication strategy can help people cope. 

Public information officers ensure that important news and information gets to the right people at the right time in a crisis. Their work is crucial for keeping the public informed and protected and can help lead communities toward recovery. For individuals interested in a career where they can apply communication skills to public safety, the role of a public information officer may be their calling.

What Is a Public Information Officer? 

A public information officer acts as the communications liaison between an organization and the public. Also known as PIOs, they commonly work for federal, state and local government agencies. Their primary function is to communicate timely and accurate information concerning an incident or activity to the public through various media and social media channels. 

Because these incidents are often complex situations involving multiple stakeholders, PIOs may also be tasked with sharing information with key personnel involved with the incident as well as other relevant agencies. They’re also responsible for keeping all parties abreast of any sudden, urgent changes to existing information. 

While PIOs primarily work in government, there are other career opportunities in the private sector to consider. In these cases, PIOs often function in a public relations capacity, where they can disseminate information and promote a positive corporate image. 

In these roles, they may take on the responsibility of being the face of the organization, acting as a spokesperson to provide the public with key data or address negative incidents.

Public Information Officer Job Description 

The primary focus of a public information officer’s job description is communicating with the general public. In this capacity, PIOs have several duties that enable them to successfully get their messages out to the public.

For example, a PIO is responsible for devising and executing various communication strategies for disseminating information to the public as well as determining which forms of communication are appropriate in a given situation. This may include holding press conferences to provide crucial updates on an ongoing crisis. They may also be tasked with speaking directly to citizens in public forums to answer their questions.

For items that are important but not quite as urgent, PIOs may write press releases containing information for the public and share them with media outlets. They may also be tasked with sharing updates on social media.

A PIO’s duties aren’t always related to sharing urgent news. They may sometimes host special events to promote holidays or important public events. They may also help coordinate interviews between various stakeholders and members of the media. 

If they work in the private sector, they may work with an organization’s executive management to help craft a public image.

Regardless of sector, it’s vital for public information officers to cultivate strong relationships with the media. Building these relationships can ultimately lend greater credence to the information a PIO shares, which ideally carries through when the media reports on the PIO’s message.

How to Become a Public Information Officer 

The typical educational benchmark for a PIO is a bachelor’s degree, typically in communications or an adjacent field, such as journalism or marketing. For those interested in pursuing a PIO role in government, earning an advanced degree can further enhance their skill set as well as deepen their knowledge of government affairs and different crises they may need to address in a public sector capacity. 

Gaining experience in public relations is also a key step. An entry-level PR role allows individuals to develop foundational knowledge and skills, such as building relationships with the media, learning how to optimize the reach of certain media outlets, and understanding different communication strategies for disseminating crucial information 

Some graduate programs may provide the opportunity for internships and practicums that allow students to gain experience in a controlled setting. Other programs may also provide individuals with case studies and simulations that allow them to cultivate crisis communication skills. 

Public Information Officer Salary

According to the salary aggregate site Payscale, the median annual salary for a public information officer as of February 2023 was around $60,600. Payscale also notes that the top 10 percent of earners in the role had a median salary of more than $89,000.

Several factors can influence the precise compensation earned as a PIO, such as education level, years of experience, and industry sector. Job location may also play a role.

Become a Trusted Voice in Tough Times 

A public information officer can help mitigate the panic, confusion and anxiety brought on by crisis through clear, timely communication, keeping the public and other key parties informed of what to do and where to go for help.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program can prepare you to excel in this important role. As the nation’s first homeland security and emergency preparedness program, we are uniquely qualified to impart a deep understanding of how to navigate crises. Our program can help you develop the knowledge and skills necessary to be a trusted authority during tough times. 

Learn how we can equip you to pursue a career as a public information officer.