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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.
Public services do not have the luxury of "segmenting" their markets so that their services are directed at one or two of the most profitable market niches. The fire service is a 24-hour, first responder service, available to every single citizen, regardless of the severity of the incident. We operate through local government and citizen funding. Public-sector marketing is exchange for mutual gain. The public exchanges tax dollars to gain the service we give. We gain the public's support and the opportunity to perform the service. This means that the public is always watching what we do and how we do it. They have a right to know because, in the end, it is their money and their service.
How we present our service to the public is critical because if the public does not know what, why and how we perform the service, they will question why they should spend the dollars on the service, or at the least, various parts of it. When one considers that only about 3% of the public actually needs our services annually, the need for consistent awareness will always remain a priority.
Awareness can convey a number of public responses, positive and negative. Why do you need infrared cameras? Why do you need four-person engine companies? Why are you putting holes in my roof? Why do you need so much equipment for such a small fire? Why did you send an aerial truck to a heart attack? Why didn't you arrive sooner?
What Is Public Information?
We inform the public by delivering information through various kinds of 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. Media can be divided into electronic, such as TV, radio and the Internet, or print, such as newspapers, billboards and newsletters. We deliver messages to the public about our service. The message may be the details of a recent incident or notification of a future disaster preparedness exhibition.
How those messages are delivered to the public depends first on the strength of the relationships the department, specifically the PIO, has with reporters representing various news agencies. Most established PIOs manage those relationships exceedingly well, making certain that they or someone else in the department are always available who can give the press credible, accurate information.
What kind of information? This depends on the situation or incident. In the case of an incident, the information needs are usually immediate for pure facts, translated into understandable sound bites: who, what, when and where. Sometimes it is possible to interject a few positive points. An automatic sprinkler that stopped a fire in an unoccupied building is a great endorsement for the adoption of a sprinkler ordinance.
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, saving major portions of the house. There is a proactive approach and a reactive approach to sound bites about incidents.
Consider a major property loss from one incident vs. the total amount of property value your department protects over the entire year. A mention of all of the "after care" services the department provided highlights the customer service aspect of the department. These are the daily incident-based situations in which we present the department to the media.
The better, more thoughtful PIOs always consider representatives of the media as "customers." In this way the PIO is looking out for the kind of stories a particular news agency may be seeking. When the PIO can provide current, helpful hints, tips or seasonal facts, he or she establishes the department as an "expert" and a source of critical information. The media is always looking for filler material. Most of us consider this fluff or "puff" pieces, but they really butter the bread with the media. Such expertise and knowledge may prompt a series of articles, thus gaining more visibility and impact with the public. It becomes an on-going win-win situation as the relationship develops. It is proactive versus reactive.
What Makes Information Important?
Tim Birr, deputy chief of public affairs for the Tualitin Valley Fire District just outside Portland, OR, notes in his excellent handbook, 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 will determine whether they will be seen or heard. And that 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 to break through the clutter? Media marketing. In light of these questions, a thoughtful, strategic communications plan with its various tactics can become a powerful tool to assist a department to achieve its initiatives.
The Impact Of Public Information Officers
Most departments have standard public information policies outlining the correct procedures for working with the press at incidents. It is critical that all members of the department understand those procedures and that each firefighter can answer questions if necessary.
As in any organization, internal support and individual firefighter initiative is vital. The best PIOs must gain the support from the firefighters through the work ethic. You can't mandate support. You have to earn it every day. In the end this support will determine at least 50% of your success.
Effective PIOs are great conduits of information to the right sources within the department, not just its primary voice. The role can be tough because the PIO may have the responsibility for public information, but he or she may not have the complete authority for obtaining it. This, of course, is a modern organizational challenge and it means that the PIO must be an excellent networker within the department. This also means gaining the respect for a team effort on behalf of all members of the department.
In order to make a significant contribution to that plan the public information function should be at an officer's level or, in the case of a civilian, at a director's level. Many departments keep the PIO function relegated to a tactical position, working with the media in reporting incidents. However, the trend over the last few years has been for PIOs in medium and large departments to be at the level of captain and in many cases, deputy, division and even assistant chiefs. This just makes sense. If one considers the position of a marketing officer in any private enterprise, it is almost always at a very high level. Why? Marketing affects the most people-the market, and it is directly related to corporate income or, in our case, tax dollars.
The point here is that the PIO function should have direct input into the department's long-range plan for two reasons. First, the PIO should have enough knowledge of each of the department's functions to be able to explain them to the press and public. Second, the PIO can act as a filter for certain departmental initiatives and goals, both internally and externally. The PIO can then develop a communications and public affairs plan based on the general and functional goals of the department. This plan provides the basis for the specific ongoing messages the department will convey to the public. The PIO can then ask specific departmental units to provide information and interviews for the press if necessary in their areas of expertise (i.e., hazmat, disaster preparedness, engine company activities, etc.).
Next: Sample PIO programs.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.