The Role of Media Marketing For the Fire-Rescue Service

Sept. 1, 2008

It is impossible to emphasize enough the vital role of the media in the creation of an effective marketing plan for a fire department. The reasons are as obvious as the nightly news, nationally and locally. There is not a week that passes in our nation that one does not see a report of a fire in some community. I have often wondered what the result would be from a mechanism that tracked every fire that is reported on local TV stations across the nation. And we all know the setting for the report. The local reporter will be at the scene with a camera panning the home that has just burned. In America, we still do not understand that this consistent occurrence is an abnormality and does not occur in other first-world countries.

Most of the news that affects us occurs at the local level. And it is at the local level that we can use the media to accomplish a number of goals for each fire department. In considering how to effect change in our communities, especially from a fire prevention perspective, there simply is not a better mechanism than the media. It is also the best forum in which to promote your department, especially when you have positive stories to tell. The downside, of course, is that any negative stories -- especially dealing with potential scandal -- can reverberate throughout the airwaves, delivering a crippling blow to the reputation of a department that many people have worked for years to build.

It is the power and the leverage of the media that each department must learn to understand. It is the best way to deliver a message to the largest number of people at one time. The sophistication of the public and the media itself demands that even a small department should have at least one person dedicated to the discipline of public information and media marketing.

A focused public affairs program can be one of the most important mechanisms to achieve awareness of the fire service among its constituencies and support the department's primary mission to protect the public. This is true for reasons based on two evolving trends. First, the national brand equity and visibility of the fire service continue to rise in the public perception (and it's an equity each department must consistently protect). Second, a skeptical public continues to "turn off" over 1,000 commercial messages daily from corporate America. This means that public service marketing is coming into its own.

Public service marketing is the term I use to differentiate real-time news that delivers a message for the public good. When a local fire department does this through the media, there is no need to promote anything except the safety message. In fact, the fire service -- led by your local department in the local media -- is being promoted as a byproduct of the safety message. This means, however, that a thoughtful media marketing plan is critical to make sure that overall departmental public service marketing goals are being achieved. Especially today, it is critical to have someone in the department who understands in depth how to create and implement an effective public affairs plan. At the very least, you should have someone on board who can be assigned as the public information officer (PIO) on a moment's notice.

Effective PIOs are worth their weight in gold bars in crafting fire service messages for timely and proper delivery to the press. The PIO is, in effect, the functional marketing officer of the department. My purpose in this short column is not to offer a primer on media relations or a functional summary of the duties of public information officers, but to offer a few insights from a marketing perspective on some effective ways that the public information function can work with the media to get our message across and why its is so critical. A fire department is not a commercial business and usually does not have a marketing department with a budget and marketing director. However, if trends continue, look for this distinct possibility. If the PIO is to fulfill such a role effectively, he or she must have the complete support of the entire department, as well as the unwavering guidance and support of the chief.

The PIO acts as the conduit through which most of the official information about the department is dispersed to the public through the media. This does not just mean being on the spot at a house, building or wildfire with the necessary facts for reporters. It is also the PIO's responsibility to work seamlessly with the fire prevention division on new legislative initiatives, such as for residential sprinklers, for a smoke alarm campaign, for a new piece of apparatus, a bond issue or recruitment for volunteers. As our national and local demographics continue to shift in age, income and diversity, the PIO is playing an increasingly critical role in getting specific messages out to at-risk populations. As public safety demands continue to grow, look for the PIO position to develop into a director of public affairs as part of the senior officer team, with multiple public service marketing responsibilities.

My next column will describe how the fire service informs the public through the media.

BEN MAY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for more than 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District. May holds a bachelor's degree in public affairs from the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree in international communication from the American University in Washington, D.C. He has been a vice president of two international marketing firms over the last 25 years, and now is responsible for business development for Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort.

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