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Answer: Whether a department is successful in achieving its goals depends to some degree on how effectively it gets the message across to the various publics. The media is the main public service conduit to get a consistent message to the most people at one time.
Whether we are firefighters, fire protection engineers, fire service administrators or EMS professionals, each of us in the fire protection community has a very clear picture of why we are in this profession. While our motivations may differ, our mission is usually quite clear.
Since 9/11, the public has become increasingly aware of how we feel about the job and why we do what we do. The recent NBC Frontline series, "Firehouse," is an excellent step forward in demonstrating to the public the nature of our profession, how we do it and what differentiates it from other professions. The fact that this program is in a news magazine format is all the more effective. It lends credibility to our actions. This is media marketing at its best through the national media.
Most of the news that affects us, however, occurs at the local level and an effective public information officer (PIO) will tell you that media marketing can be one of the best forms of promotion for a fire department. It is the best way to deliver a message to the largest number of people at one time. As a marketing professional, I have observed that a strong public affairs program can be one of the most important mechanisms to achieve awareness of our service among our constituencies as well as support a department's primary mission to protect the public. Effective PIOs are worth their weight in gold bars in the delivery of the marketing message to the press. For example, the website featured on this page is a function of the Florida Association of Public Information Officers, one of the most effective PIO programs in the country and one which I will describe in detail in Part 2.
My purpose here is not to offer a primer on media relations or a functional summary of the duties of public information officers. My goal is to offer a few insights from a marketing perspective on some effective ways that the public information function works with the media to get our message across and why it is so important.
Every fire service agency and department has a number of goals it wants to accomplish during the year. A fire department is not a commercial business and usually does not have a "marketing department" with a budget and a marketing director. However, the role of the PIO can come very close to filling that bill if the position has the appropriate responsibility to be effective. This means having the complete support of the chief, officers and firefighters.
The position of PIO in the fire service has evolved over the past 15 to 20 years. And while the position and the duties of the PIO now occupy a more prominent place in many departments, it is still surprising that we do not hear more about it and the tremendous job fire department PIOs perform for our service.
The function of the PIO has become a critical tool of the "marketing mix" of any department. And while there is any number of ways to get our message across through the media, the PIO function acts as the conduit, through which most official information is dispersed to the media, and eventually, to the public. These messages might pertain to a new sprinkler initiative or a smoke detector campaign, the need for a new piece of apparatus or a new station or volunteer recruiting. Certain populations at risk might be included.
A few years ago, Bellevue, WA, experienced an influx of Russians who did not understand the need for smoke detectors. The fire department mounted an initiative to print and distribute pamphlets in Russian explaining the importance of smoke detectors and how to use them. Press initiatives hammered the point home. While this was a public education initiative, media marketing played a key part of the means to the end.