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In the July issue, we discussed ideas contributing to the foundation of a marketing strategy for a fire department or fire service organization. We concentrated on the initial approach to creating an effective strategic marketing plan. This month, we will define our terms and discuss how to create the team with the responsibility for developing the plan.
First, we need to get very basic. This means defining our terms. I tend to use the terms marketing and public affairs interchangeably, but it depends on your audience. This is as important internally as externally, especially when you form the team that will create the plan. If you use the word marketing, define it as it applies to a public service. This means differentiating it from a profit-making entity. In my opinion, marketing refers to a more comprehensive plan that includes public affairs as a key tactic. However, when discussing the plan in a public forum or presenting it to organizations outside the department, you may want to use the term public affairs plan.
There is no question that the fire service has embraced the idea of marketing and understands its need and uses, but there is still a perception that marketing refers to sales and advertising used to generate revenue. This could appear to some people to be confusing, self-serving and unnecessary for a public service. Fortunately, most government and non-profit organizations include marketing as a critical and integral mechanism to achieve the organization's mission. Also, the pervasiveness of marketing in our society has contributed to the community's understanding that a public service needs marketing just like any other service if its voice is going to be heard. But, it still pays to be sensitive to any negative perceptions of marketing's application to pubic service. Simply stated, the purpose of the marketing plan is to create a balance between the department's mission and the needs of the community.
Creating The Team
In a fire department, the marketing team is the single most important aspect of the plan. That is because we work in teams in the fire service. We all rise and fall, live and die, and achieve success or failure together. This is different than many other kinds of endeavors. The same kind of team orientation applies to the creation of a marketing plan because its success determines whether we continue to serve the community as firefighters. The composition of the team will determine the success of the plan.
First, the fire chief must be convinced of the critical need and contribution of marketing to the department's mission. If the chief doesn't see it clear enough to initiate the creation of the plan, it may be an uphill battle. This doesn't mean that it can't be done. There are many chiefs who may not understand the mechanics of marketing, but who surround themselves with great officers and firefighters who do see it. These chiefs listen to their people, giving them plenty of rope. This comes from the chief's confidence in their actions and their intelligence. Many of the accredited departments fall into this category. If the chief is lukewarm to the idea of a marketing plan, you will have one hand tied behind your back.
I can tell if a chief is a long-range thinker vis-Ã -vis marketing within 10 minutes of meeting him (I say "him" because every female chief I have ever met understood marketing's contribution within a nanosecond. They just "get it."). In my experience, chiefs have two diverging views on marketing. First, there are what I call the "back steppers," referring to chiefs who came up through the ranks riding the back steps of rigs (like many of us) before safety standards made riding on the back step a relic of the past. That's my point. In terms of understanding marketing's contribution, they are still on that back step. Don't get me wrong, these men are usually excellent operations chiefs and run very good departments. As I said to one of them a few months ago when he questioned the idea of marketing, "Who knows, maybe you're right. Why would you need marketing?"