Marketing a Noble Calling

Recently, I spoke to graduate students about the basic principles of business development. My purpose was to create an understanding of how to develop alliances between two companies or between a nonprofit organization and a corporation for mutual benefit. I asked how many in the class are pursuing careers in marketing. Lots of hands went up. Then I asked them what they want to do with such a career. The answers varied, but most came down to making a lot of money and progressing within companies.

Marketing has always been one of the paths to the top. Nowadays, I would include finance and law. I told them that marketing is a fairly neutral discipline with its own set of principles, standards and measurements, and that it could be used for good or evil (depending on your definition of good or evil) with many shades of gray.

I have met many people who swear by their products and services. When I was in the wine business, some of my associates had vanity license plates with sayings like WINE 1 or a sticker noting that "Life is a Cabernet." People are "into their thing," and, in our country, we are our jobs to a fault. It's important not to be too judgmental. However, most of the people I know in the fire service are pretty idealistic.

Firefighters love being firefighters. I remember my training lieutenant when I was in rookie school saying, "There is no such thing as a bad firefighter because the bad ones don't stay." We are part of a select group of professionals. I would also add local and national public-sector professionals to this group; i.e., police, utilities, and local and county officials. There is a growing pride here also. This is a group to acknowledge and for us to be aware of since we have to work with these people to accomplish our jobs.

When it comes to marketing the fire service, I like to think of it as "might for right." Fire service marketing comprises equal parts of two emerging and growing areas of marketing leadership: public service marketing and social marketing.

Public service marketing — Public service marketing is simple and can be powerful, but hard to implement, especially to a cluttered market and skeptical public. It is designed to demonstrate what we do, how we do it and how the results affect every citizen. This is our platform to grow continuing awareness of the fire service. It maintains our pride and enthusiasm while maintaining financial and popular support.

The average U.S. household is exposed to hundreds of advertising and promotional messages daily, so fire service marketing can't be a "hobby," but a full-time job and the responsibility of every member of the department. It is a critical part of any department's strategic plan. We must create it and manage it.

Unlike other professions, firefighters are firefighters 24/7. How we look in public and in private, how we treat people — every aspect is under the microscope. Always ask yourself, "How are we perceived?" If the answer surprises you, there is work to do. The only answer from the public should be: "We love them and can't live without them."

Social marketing — The other key goal of "might for right" or "noble calling" marketing is that of social marketing. This is a discipline that has come into its own in the last decade. How does this affect the fire service? It makes it more difficult to gain support to deal with the fire problem, especially when you want to partner with a corporate entity. This can be a major opportunity for your department. It's called a public-private partnership and our brand is powerful. Think about all of the causes out there — from cancer to the Red Cross to environmentalism. So when we say that fire kills 3,350 people annually, the response can be: "That's bad, but cancer kills 500,000 people and traffic accidents kill 40,000." So we say, "Where do you want to draw the line on a life?"

Our job is to handle the fire and EMS problem, so that is what we are going to do with the tools that we have. Social marketing is one of the tools we can use to change behavior. It is all of the prevention and public education that we do.

Fire service marketing maintains that both of these key areas — public service marketing and social marketing — play off of each other to effectively gain public support while we are doing our jobs. Because the firefighter is a role model and so admired in this country, we have an amazing opportunity to affect positive change in our communities, we have a noble calling, and a family of intelligent, strong brothers and sisters. But, our existence is not just dependent on our intelligence or our strength, or even on our effectiveness. It is dependent on the public's knowledge and support of the service we provide. And that is dependent on marketing.

BEN MAY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for more than 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District. May holds a bachelor's degree in public affairs from the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree in international communication from the American University in Washington, D.C. He has been a vice president of two international marketing firms over the last 25 years, and now is responsible for business development for Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort.