Media Marketing: Getting The Message Across – Part 2

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The Voice Of The Department And Of The Chief

While every PIO should have direct access to the chief, the key voice of the department is almost always the chief. This becomes critically important in terms of the department's strategic plan and in addressing major departmental issues and crises. The chief must have a very clear understanding of the impact of departmental issues on the public and the potential importance of his or her personal, command presence in public. Some chiefs do this naturally in the nature of the leadership position, others may rely more on the PIO.

Former Assistant Chief Jon Hansen was the voice and face of the Oklahoma City Fire Department after the terrorist bombing in 1995 and the F5 tornado in 1996. However, Jon worked closely with Chief Gary Marrs to make certain that the position reflected the chief's direction. Jon was a captain on an engine company when he was tapped to become PIO. His career path demonstrates the direction and importance of the evolving position.

There are also excellent civilian PIOs who may enter a department laterally, with excellent leadership, communication and marketing skills to complement a passion for the fire department and the desire to be in public service. Such civilians with a love and commitment to the fire service understand the needs and direction of their own department, as well as the vital impact and contribution the media and marketing can make to the department.

One such person was Steve Jensen. The PIO position in Phoenix developed through the support and direction of Chief Alan Brunacini when he hired Jensen from a local news station. Steve developed the position to become a national model, well ahead of its time. Steve's position grew to become assistant to the chief for public affairs. Steve was so committed to the department and the position that he became the voice and face of the Phoenix Fire Department. Steve developed the position to include community affairs as well as public education. Deputy Chief Bobby Kahn has built on the foundation Steve created to make an even stronger and more widespread position of influence.

Whether the PIO is civilian or line officer, any effective public information program must have a very strong, market-oriented chief. This is vital for the departmental strength needed to successfully conceive and implement a long, sustained program. In all of my observations this axiom is true almost without exception. In fact, in smaller departments, the chief many times plays the major role in public information activities, whether at the scene of an incident or in a public forum.

Sample Programs

Other larger departments with excellent public information programs and leaders include:

Tualitin Valley, OR, Fire District. Tim Birr has a national reputation as an excellent public affairs chief. His chief, Jeff Johnson, has a solid grounding in marketing and customer service, so he understands the vital importance of the position.

Las Vegas Fire & Rescue. Tim Szymanski has held the position of PIO for a number of years. Tim noted that he consistently sends press releases, photos and video to the press. Sometimes, he shoots the videos himself, providing them to the media when they cannot cover an incident or event - many times, that provides coverage the department probably would not have received.

Three years ago, Las Vegas was able to hire over 100 firefighters and build five stations in addition to purchasing a fleet of trucks. A tax initiative provided the funding. Consistent media focus on the positive image of the department was a major reason for the success of the initiative.

A review of the Las Vegas website noted approximately five to six impact headlines from a couple of heroic "saves," a story about how an automatic sprinkler saved a business that was closed and unoccupied to a new station opening for the public and an explanation of why the department's Class 1 ISO rating is so important. The site also provides contacts for speakers to groups on fire protection issues.

Tim noted to me that his best public relations project today is the Citizens Fire Academy (CFA). This is an academy designed to show people what LVFR is all about. The academy meets once each week for three hours from February through May. Each week, different speakers from the department explain their division or section and show slides and videos. Citizens take field trips of the 911 center, see equipment and participate in a four-hour "ride-along" with crews on duty to see what responding to an actual emergency is like. One Saturday during the academy students spend the day at the Fire Training Center, where they don protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and go through the burn building with a simulated fire. They also use hydraulic rescue tools to tear up cars, are given a demonstration by the HazMat Team and work fire hoses. For the past three years the classes have been filled to capacity. Tim actually began dual classes because of the demand.

Las Vegas just received nearly $4,000 from various sources as donations for the Citizens Fire Academy. Over 10 departments have requested information about the CFA. At graduation, which is full fire department recruit graduation ceremony with honor, the department gives each participant a certificate and a mini-badge. They have their own uniform shirts, which they pay for, and now assist the department with various projects. Over 150 people from 15 to 77 years of age have completed the CFA since it was started in 2000. (See the article on page 134 for more information.)

Tampa Fire Rescue. Captain Bill Wade of Tampa, FL, Fire Rescue has been successful in providing a mix of initiatives to stay in the public eye. He has an ongoing TV show on public access. Tampa Fire Rescue participates in two programs on City of Tampa Television, cable channel 15. In Tampa and Hillsborough County about three-quarters of households, approximately 750,000, have cable TV service. One half-hour program, taped once a month and running three times weekly, is called "Tampa Health Notes." On this show the TFR occupational health nurse addresses topics of public health and interest. "Tampa Spotlight," a one-hour show, is taped once a month and aired three times weekly. This show is like a news magazine with the fire, police and other city departments giving "reports" about activities in the community. TFR also publishes a bimonthly newsletter called Fully Involved. It is sent to all fire stations and city leaders, and is also available on the Internet.

Bill Wade is the face and voice of TFR. Tampa is building a fire museum, which will act as a focal point for Bill's marketing and media efforts as well as those of community involvement and public education. (See "On The Job - Florida" in the August 2002 issue for his account of the multi-agency response to the crash of a small plane into a Tampa high-rise building.)

Florida Association of Public Information Officers. Larry Scovotto, the executive director of the Florida State Chiefs Association, has built one of the strongest and most effective organizations of its kind in the country. Marketing is a major element in the success of his organization. One of the major divisions of Florida State Chiefs is the PIO Section, known as FAPIO. Battalion Chief Joel Gordon, PIO of the Plantation Department of Safety, is the president.

The mission of the association is to provide an environment of networking and educational services for PIOs throughout the state, as well as raise the awareness level and promote the value of the PIO to Florida's fire service community. FAPIO also provides public information and public relations services for the Florida Fire Chiefs Association. The FAPIO deployment team responds to any major incident where public information services are needed and not available or when an established PIO needs support or backup.

An absolute jewel for current resource information is "Morning News," a weekly, comprehensive news clipping service for fire and rescue related stories from around Florida that is e-mailed to every member of the chiefs association. Some of the stories are categorized with links to national stories that may affect Florida. Utah State Chiefs has the only other PIO section in its organization.

Plantation Department of Safety. Gordon noted to me that his department in Plantation is a combination department with volunteer firefighters and career rescue.

"We are in an area predominated by career departments," he said. "There is a great deal of pressure and discussion, at the street level, about the validity of such a large department still being volunteer. Through the use of the media and media information, using data and facts such as ISO rating, training hours, response times, cost savings, etc., the department was able to establish our department as 'good as' if not better than many of the other departments in the area thereby justifying the volunteer structure."

Long-Term Media Plans

The real opportunity for a department to use media marketing is in its long-term effectiveness to achieve the department's plan. Basic elements of such a plan include public information goals based on those of the department and broken out by division. Each goal may have a public information and education element as well as a relationship management link. This last reason is vital because of the need to link department communication goals to other government departments and outside organizations.

In addition to providing major input into the departmental plan, the PIO is the tactical leader and facilitator in executing the communications and public affairs plan in the field. While most of these tactics will be directed to specific departmental initiatives, there should never be a loss for occasions and reasons to keep the department in the public eye, especially as it relates to community involvement. The media communication plan must be synergistic with the departmental plan. All messages must be simple and consistent.

Staying In The Public Eye

The following areas provide many opportunities for community involvement and awareness through public information:

  • National headlines (i.e., urban/wildland interface, 9/11).
  • Department history as it relates to the community (i.e., historical fires that changed the face of the city).
  • Departmental news (i.e., a new apparatus or new station).
  • Research and innovation in the fire service.
  • New services or programs (i.e., firefighters as role model for kids).
  • Firefighter awards or special expertise (i.e., participation in the Olympics or expert photographs or paintings of 9/11 for an art museum display).
  • Slogans (i.e., changing the name of your department or the establishment of your mission statement).
  • New legislation affecting fire protection, national and regional programs (i.e., disaster preparedness, national fire prevention week).
  • Employee activities and endorsements from businesses and organizations.
  • Media clinics for the press and public officials and citizen academies.

You can always find an angle for a fire service story. The key is to cultivate observation. Someone once said, "Genius is nothing more than observation coupled with a fixed purpose." You do not have to be a genius to have an effective public affairs program, but you do need departmental support, goals, plans and relationships. With interesting information in your toolbox and your thumb on the media's pulse, you can't fail to get the message across.

Thanks to the following people for providing information used in this column: Deputy Chief Tim Birr, Tualitin Valley Fire District and author of Media and Public Relations for the Fire Service (Pennwell, 1999); Battalion Chief Joel Gordon, Plantation Department of Safety and president of the Florida Association of Public Information Officers; Public Information Officer Tim Szymanski, Las Vegas Fire & Rescue; and Captain Bill Wade, Tampa Fire Rescue.


Ben May has over 15 years of experience creating and applying the discipline of marketing management to fire departments and emergency service organizations. He has been a firefighter and fire commissioner, and is a graduate of the Montgomery County, MD, Public Service Training Academy. May has over 25 years of experience in business-to-business marketing and sales in the U.S. and internationally. Currently, his responsibilities include developing new business at Walt Disney World's Epcot. May was fire commissioner in Woodinville, WA, from 1994 to 1998. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor of arts degree in public affairs and received his master of arts degree in international communication from the American University. May is a member of the Society of Executive Fire Officers, a trustee of the Education Foundation of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and a board member of the Tampa Firefighter's Museum. He welcomes your feedback on the column and he may be contacted at firecom1@aol.com.

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