Nonprofit of the Month: NDPIO Association

Written by: Fargo Inc

The North Dakota Public Information Officer (NDPIO) Association is a 501(c)(3) non-profit statewide organization comprised of professional communicators who operate within local, state, tribal, federal, or other public safety communicators. Additional roles may encompass public relations, public education, social media management, photography, videography, digital and print design, website management, speechwriting, and emergency communications management, either individually or in combination.

The association provides occasions for members to convene throughout the year, facilitating networking and the exchange of information, resources, ideas, and news pertinent to the public information field. NDPIO affords Public Information Officers (PIOs) from across North Dakota the opportunity to cultivate professional connections and convene for training sessions. I connected with both Rob Keller and Maxine Herr, Co-Founders of NDPIO, to delve into the organization’s origins, the passion driving their mission, the goals that lie ahead, and much more.

The NDPIO Association, established in January 2021, traces its origins back to the fall of 2017. Rob Keller and Maxine Herr, former PIOs who played vital roles during the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protest, found themselves recounting their experiences at a Utah PIO Association conference. The conference proved to be a turning point, sparking their determination to establish a dedicated state PIO association

Their initial vision aimed to unify government communicators across ND into a cohesive network, fostering mutual support and providing essential training. Over the past year, the association’s growth has been remarkable, driven by its pragmatic and timely aid to PIOs in their daily responsibilities and in navigating crises. Reflecting on their involvement during DAPL, Keller and Herr recognized the significance of solidarity among PIOs, particularly in remote, resource-constrained regions.

This realization led them to prioritize a close-knit community of support, ensuring that PIOs, whether solo practitioners or part of smaller teams, remain connected and capable of assisting each other whenever the need arises.

Nonprofit of the Month NDPIO Association
Check out some photos from the 2023 Inaugural NDPIO Training Conference, held in July! Save the date for the 2nd Annual Conference, scheduled for July 15-17, 2024.

Q&A with NDPIO

Q: How has the journey been since the beginning? What has it been like?

A: It has truly exceeded our expectations. We had no idea when we started NDPIO if we would gain any traction or support. When we would tell PIOs that we were working to start NDPIO, there was often excitement and encouragement. But when it came time to pay the annual dues and become a part of NDPIO, would people say ‘yes’ to that? They did, and a true test for us was when 2022 began, and we wondered if the members would renew. Other than PIOs who had moved on to the private sector or simply retired, we retained our membership numbers! It was very affirming of what we are trying to accomplish. Since then, we’ve hosted our inaugural NDPIO conference, which was a tremendous success, and it has given us some momentum, bringing additional organizations to the surface wanting to support NDPIO.

NDPIO’s Mission

The North Dakota Public Information Officer Association is dedicated to strengthening and engaging public sector communicators across North Dakota.

NDPIO’s Vision

To assist and empower all North Dakota communicators to realize their full potential both personally and in public service.

NDPIO's Core Values

  • Professionalism
  • Strategy
  • Ethics
  • Education
  • Networking

Q: What should readers know about the NDPIO Association, but probably don’t?

A: Many don’t yet know that we exist! Here are a few things we would like the readers to know about NDPIO:

1. Our members include government communicators and communicators from organizations with a direct nexus to government agencies, such as the ND Rural Electric Cooperatives, advertising agency representatives who contract PIO services for government agencies, and EMTs from hospitals.

2. We are almost entirely funded by membership fees, so we are always seeking donations and sponsorships to provide more services to our members and efficiently manage the association.

3. We have numerous practical resources and templates available to members on our website to help communicators avoid “reinventing the wheel.”

4. We can provide immediate assistance to any government communicators who need help when a crisis or issue arises. Through our network, we have been able to connect people to others who have ‘been there, done that’ and provided resources and guides to help them.

5. We offer different levels of membership: Regular, Group (discounted rate if more than 5 employees sign up), Associate (half-price, open to retired PIOs and students), and Non-Voting Affiliates (half-price, available to individuals, businesses, and other organizations that seek to support the mission of NDPIO).

6. Many of our members are highly trained, certified Advanced PIOs through FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute.

Meet The Co-Founder Rob Keller

Image showcasing NDPIO Association as the Nonprofit of the Month.

Rob Keller is currently retired but has been involved in Public Affairs and Crisis Communications for over 40 years. He graduated from Evangel University (Springfield, MO) in 1979 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television Journalism. He was a TV news reporter and anchor, a community relations officer for a police department, a television producer, conducted marketing and advertising for the U.S. Army, and worked multiple FEMA disasters in North Dakota including floods, wildfires, snow storms, and a Cannadian Pacific railroad anhydrous ammonia spill. 

He was retired from the U.S. Army when he received a call from the ND Department of Emergency Services (NDDES) to return to full-time PIO status to work a “small protest happening in southern Morton County that would probably fizzle out in two to three months.” Nine months later he returned to retirement status. During the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protest, Rob was the lead Public Information Officer for the Morton County Sheriff’s Office and the ND Department of Emergency Services Joint Information Center. Rob and his team of over 15 PIOs worked over 500 media engagements during the 234-day protest that garnered the attention of the world. 

Rob was a Deputy PIO for the ND COVID-19 response and helped form a 50-person Joint Information Center staff within two weeks that continued for almost two years.

He has been a FEMA Crisis Communication trainer for over 10 years having trained over 600 PIO practitioners to be “Crisis Ready.”

Maxine Herr

Image showcasing NDPIO Association as the Nonprofit of the Month.

A North Dakota native, Maxine Herr serves as the Strategic Communications Specialist for the ND Department of Parks and Recreation. Previously, she joined Morton County as the Public Information Officer following the 234-day DAPL protest in 2016-17. She started her career as a TV news reporter and anchor for the CBS affiliate in Bismarck, ND after graduating with a Mass Communications/Public Relations Concentration Degree from the University of Mary in Bismarck. Maxine moved to Phoenix, AZ in 1997 where she worked for a national engineering firm, providing a wide range of marketing support for the private sector division. After returning to North Dakota in 2009, she did freelance writing and public relations consulting.

She’s had the privilege of working alongside Rob Keller leading public information efforts as part of the ND Emergency Management Support Team during the DAPL protest, regional flooding, and the state’s COVID-19 Response.

“We know, from managing PIO efforts for various emergency responses from DAPL to droughts and floods to COVID, that we have exceptional communications professionals within our government agencies and when we work together, we can accomplish so much. NDPIO is a way to bring all of us under one umbrella to better serve our communities.”

Q: What sets you apart from other organizations in your community, or other organizations with similar missions?

A: There are other professional organizations in the state for communicators and public relations professionals in general, but none are solely for government workers. As agencies committed to transparency and open government, we are unique in our approach and, first and foremost, serve the public.

Q: What services do you offer to members?

A: We offer resources, networking, counsel, and training to our members and their colleagues. This directly influences our capacity to enhance and engage communicators who serve government agencies in North Dakota. Additionally, we provide urgent services to those confronting immediate crises or issues. Our assistance includes practical resources, connections, and moral support.

Q: What services will a donor’s money go to when contributing to the mission?

A: Operating an association of professionals requires streamlined and easily accessible tools and systems to ensure efficiency. Our website serves as the primary portal for information and communication for our members, underscoring the importance of maintaining its functionality. Given our regular monthly trainings, we are keen on acquiring scheduling software to enhance our ability to organize invitations and send out reminders effectively.

The funding for our annual conference comes from sponsorships, providing agencies and organizations with a platform to network and showcase their services to our members. Furthermore, we aspire to offer supplementary one-day trainings in addition to our annual conference. These sessions could feature a panel of experts or focus on interview training.

Q: How can people donate to the organization, other than through monetary doantions?

A: We love to offer our members tools and materials they can use in their day-to-day jobs, so donations that can go into the grab bags at our annual conference are always appreciated. We are also seeking CPA services. As a small nonprofit, our accounts are not complicated, but having someone oversee those books and ensure we are submitting what’s needed to the IRS each year would be wonderful. We also are always in need of speakers who can teach and (virtually) train our membership in areas of interest to them in their professional roles.

Q: What are all of the ways that readers can support the nonprofit?

A: Spread the word! We are a new association, and, most of all, we need more people talking about NDPIO to make more government agencies aware of it. County commissions, city councils, etc., need to encourage their spokespeople—whether that’s the auditor, the mayor, or HR—to become members of NDPIO. There are many government communicators who may not have the “PIO” title, but they are the ones the media reaches out to when a story breaks. If there is a crisis or emergency in your community, you’ll want the person who is doing the communicating to be well-trained and ready. We also encourage businesses and organizations to become affiliate members to show their support for NDPIO and also to make our membership aware of their services. When we have quarterly meetings, those are open to non-members, so we encourage anyone with curiosity or interest in NDPIO to check us out during those meetings or contact us.

Q: Do you have any upcoming events or ways to get involved in person?

A: Every February, May, August, and November, our monthly trainings are open to non-members. To join our distribution list, please email [email protected]. Do you have a topic you’d like to share with our membership? Feel free to request to be a speaker for our virtual monthly trainings.

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Brady Drake is the editor of Fargo INC!