Public Perception & Reputation Management

How sincerely gratifying to see the results of the IAFC's Fire and Emergency Service Task Force's "Taking Responsibility for a Positive Public Perception" report. This document is an excellent foundation for action. From a public service marketing perspective, the findings are right on target.

The underlying premise of the work is the responsibility we share in creating a positive image for our department. The reason this is so important is that the effects - positive or negative - reflect the image of the entire fire service nationally. Our local behavior dictates our national reputation. Social media and instantaneous communication bring this reality home. Our behavior in public, especially - but also among our fellow firefighters in the firehouse - define how the public forms their perception of us. Public perception becomes public opinion; public opinion contributes to public policy in the form of political representation. These policies determine public support in every aspect, but, especially financially.

Our existence is not just dependent on our competency. The good citizens expect that we know how to handle an emergency incident. But they need the knowledge to understand the underlying reasons of our right to continue to exist as a public or volunteer agency. This is especially true in these very tight financial times when every public action and agency is under scrutiny. The last thing the public will tolerate is anything that blemishes our image through some unprofessional action - even by one firefighter.

The task force explains the reasons why this is a complex issue to resolve. Dramatic cultural, educational, socio-economic and demographic changes affect how we maintain a positive image and how the public perceives it. Our firefighters are as varied as the public they serve. They learn in different ways based on different generations. The public perceives our image through its own varied background. But one constant rings true: our behavior creates perception in every public setting. And perception is reality.

This can be found in budget discussions among senior political leadership, or at a public assistance call for a minor medical incident. Some years ago the term fire service marketing management set a framework to define the role of the fire service in the public perception. The IAFC task force has recognized that reputation management is one of the key elements of such marketing. It defines the equity of the fire service in the same way that a public corporation creates value and equity through the work it does; the actions its customers perceive. We all know what happens to a company that begins to falter when it fails to deliver on the promise of its mission. It loses customer support and revenue. Its stock begins to drop and the results can be that the company is no longer in business in the manner it once was. It may even go out of business.

The fire service is even more vulnerable because it is a public agency. We live in a time of unbelievably rapid change and innovation. There is nothing written that dictates that we stay in business as a public agency. We have the responsibility to define our own future. Our public image is the critical aspect that will determine that our citizens can't live without us or provide an alternative.

The promise of our own mission defines the high standards of the delivery of our service. Every firefighter, officer and civilian personnel in every department has the responsibility to maintain a standard that defines excellence for any organization -public or private. The IAFC Image Task Force has recognized the critical need to actively manage our image. The report is exceptional in recognizing the issues and providing a broad framework and some tools for action. Every department can use this document as a basis to develop its own plan to achieve a result in which every fire fighter and officer is proud that they reflect in behavior the very best of the profession they love so much.

Ours is a noble calling. It is our responsibility to keep it that way.