How the Fire Service Informs the Public Through the Media

The fire-rescue service informs the public by delivering information through various media. This cooperative use of the media is one of the most significant points of leverage we have in getting our message across en masse. TV, radio and newspapers reach many people at once. We can divide media into TV, radio and the Internet, or print such as billboards and newsletters. We can subdivide the Internet into websites, on-line news feeds, social marketing sites and blogs.

When we deliver messages to the public about our service through the media, they may be reactive or proactive. A reactive message deals with the facts about an incident such as a house fire. There is always a teachable moment as a result of an incident, especially because the media and the fire department have the public's attention, if even for 30 seconds. The light, sound and drama of an incident unfortunately attract the public's attention. A proactive message may be a fire prevention or education public service announcement around the winter holidays warning against the dangers of dry Christmas trees or the sudden use of space heaters during a sudden cold snap.

The quality and frequency of all messages depends on the strength of the relationships the department, especially the public information officer (PIO), has with reporters. Most established PIOs manage those relationships exceedingly well, making certain that someone is available 24/7 who can give the press credible, accurate information for public consumption.

What kind of information? This depends on the situation or the incident. In the case of a house or building fire, the information needs are immediate for pure facts translated into understandable sound bites: who, what, when and where. Sometimes, it's possible to interject a few instructive points. An automatic sprinkler that stopped a fire in its incipient stage is a great endorsement for the adoption of a sprinkler ordinance. This can be especially effective if there is time to show the return on investment versus the damage, possible loss of life and potential fire suppression delivery costs for such an incident.

When an engine company makes a great stop for a room-and-contents fire, one can mention it in two ways. The sound bite can emphasize the size of the loss: a negative. Or the message can emphasize the speed with which the firefighters arrived, how quickly they put out the fire and the fact that the fire was confined to the room of origin without loss of life and minimal damage, thus saving the major portions of the house. Consider a major property loss from just one fire vs. the total value of property your department saved over the same period or a mention of all of the "after-care" services the department provided. These highlight the customer service aspect that the public may not be aware from an emergency service.

Thoughtful PIOs consider representatives of the media as customers with specific needs. These PIOs are attuned to those needs as they gain respect from the media. Mutual trust and respect set the groundwork for the creation of win-win situation that can lead to ongoing positive, proactive stories for the fire department, especially the prevention mission.

Once such a relationship is established, the PIO can be on the lookout for the kind of stories a particular news agency is seeking. When the PIO can provide current, helpful hints, tips or seasonal facts, he or she establishes the department as the true expert that it is as a source of critical information, packaged in way that the press can market to the public. The media are always looking for ideas and information that become the basis of one or a series of stories. This gives the fire department that opportunity to stay visible in the public eye with maximum impact, and not just during emergencies. Naturally, this approach is more effective when the PIO or public affairs chief has already developed a media marketing plan based on departmental goals.

Tim Birr notes in his exceedingly useful book, Media and Public Relations for the Fire Service, that there are eight questions to ask when considering whether news is important:

  • How many people does it affect?
  • Is the story controversial?
  • Does the story deal with real change?
  • Is the story about something new?
  • Is the story timely?
  • Does the story involve public funds?
  • Does the story involve someone of prominence?
  • Is the story about bad news?

The value of stories based on these questions can determine whether they will be seen or heard. This also depends on the needs of the media and the competition for news on a particular day. The world does not revolve around the fire service. There are thousands of stories that someone wants the public to know about.

How does a fire department break through the clutter? Media marketing is the answer. Marketing is exchange for mutual gain. You give the media accurate, meaningful information and stories with an angle; the media give the department visibility to maintain fire service brand equity. A thoughtful, strategic marketing communication plan can become a powerful tool to assist a department to achieve its mission while maintaining a positive, dynamic image in the public eye.

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.