Fire Politics Sidebar: Managing Your Department's Reputation

T he International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) paper Taking Responsibility for a Positive Perception (http://www.iafc.org/files/1DEPTadmin/TakingResponsiblity4PositivePublicPerception.pdf), issued earlier this year, highlights the marketing...


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Social media

Now let’s look at Marketing 3.0 and the opportunity for the fire service in light of the critical need for a national strategic marketing/public affairs plan, coupled with local strategies and tactics. The purpose of both is to grow the perception of the fire service to an unassailable position. The IAFC paper is a great initial platform.

As social media become increasingly expressive, people are better able to influence other people – locally, nationally and globally – with opinions and experiences. Kotler notes that trust exists more in horizontal rather than in vertical relationships, meaning that people believe more in one another than they believe in companies or organizations.

According to a 2009 Nielsen Global Survey, fewer consumers rely on company-generated advertising. Increasingly, they turn to word-of-mouth as a form of advertising they can trust. Around 90% trust recommendations from people they know, while 70% believe opinions posted online. Kotler notes that Trendstream/Lightspeed research shows that consumers trust strangers in their social network more than they trust experts. This could be an opportunity for the fire service, especially in establishing credibility and safety messages. Why? It is non-threatening and we are not selling anything but our citizens’ safety. We can be the experts in this non-threatening way.

The influence of corporate advertising and what we say about ourselves in the fire service will diminish. Social media are low cost and can appear to be bias-free compared to what we say. That is why behavior and integrity become so important. Imagine if a citizen perceives a firefighter engaging in unprofessional behavior and then writes about it on a blog. What if it isn’t true? How do we deal with that? The best way is to have a values-based department with strong supportive leadership endorsing the true image of the firefighter as a leading force in all areas of public safety. Kotler notes that citizens are seeking admirable characters outside their communities. They are skeptical because they know good characters are scarce, but once they find them, they instantly become loyal evangelists.

The basis of Marketing 3.0 confirms that we no longer own the brand “fire department.” The citizens own it. Social media have put the brand into the hands of the citizens we want to support us. Marketing 3.0 is based on actual value, certainly financial, but especially human. This value equation is the key to our sustainability – our ability to understand and join the social media conversation. This still must be coupled with the local and national media to craft our story and tell it well.

We are entering a values-driven era of marketing. The question now is what should our strategy be as we move forward? Vision 20/20 (http://www.strategicfire.org/) has been at the forefront of progressive change in the fire service. Five key strategies have been developed through gap analysis over the past five years. The strategies are: fire prevention advocacy; marketing; culture; technology; and codes and standards. The platform of Vision 20/20 defines fire service Marketing 3.0, specifically Community Risk Reduction, adopted from a model in the United Kingdom, and that has begun to blossom in jurisdictions around the country through specific training modules.

In a nutshell, Community Risk Reduction establishes in-home inspections with the ability to determine other potential hazards. Most important, the program establishes collaboration with the community and its people. The result is one of the most effective values for our marketing. The citizen can become a partner in his or her own safety. The Vision 20/20 initiatives, coupled with the IAFC reputation-management paper, provide an amazing road to ensure the long-term safety of our citizens as well as their financial and political support. The key, of course, is execution. All the resources and tools are now available. Let’s use them to create and sustain our own future as we protect the future of our citizens. n