Inside the Marketing Plan: Putting Ideas into Action – Part 1

July 1, 2006

The next few Marketing ICS columns will focus on one of the most critical areas contributing to the leadership of any fire department: the development of a marketing or public affairs plan. In working with small and large departments, as well as many national fire service organizations, I have become acutely aware that the difference between success and failure is directly related to leadership’s ability to develop and execute a realistic plan.

Most fire departments and fire service organizations understand the need for planning and its important contribution to the mission of protecting the lives and safety of its constituencies. The proof of any plan’s success is the department’s ability to understand five points:

• Establish a compelling need to create and execute the plan.
• The department’s mission and vision must actively contribute to the foundation of the plan.
• Understand how the marketing plan will make a significant, measurable contribution to the department’s overall goals to protect the fire and life safety of the community.
• Change and adaptation must be built in to the plan so that it is action-oriented with a feedback and modification loop.
• The plan’s major components are a part of the daily objectives and actions of each member of the department.

There is nothing like a crisis to stimulate action. Many organizations perform at their peak when faced with a crisis. In fact, some of the recent literature on corporate planning notes that it is sometimes helpful to establish an atmosphere of crisis in a planning group to emphasize the need to be ready to adapt to the rapid change of the business environment, policies, markets and technologies.

The fire service developed over the years in an atmosphere of crisis. Our reason for being is based on our ability to respond to multiple crises simultaneously within our various jurisdictions around the country. Yet, when confronted with the critical need to plan for making a greater contribution to our citizens’ safety through the development and growth of our own department, we sometimes behave as the frog in a pot of slowly heating water: "250 years of tradition unimpeded by progress."

This idea of complacency is changing and none too soon. There are two ways that an organization can change. The first is to adapt to its environment and the second is to change it. The best plans include both. This means accepting the premise that things change rapidly and plans are "messy" at best. Any incident commander or firefighter knows the truth of rapidly changing situations. We are always ready for action. It’s who we are and what we do. We plan for it. Let’s remember to keep a bit of that crisis-action mentality when we write our long-range plans.

The department’s mission and vision must actively contribute to the foundation of the plan. Most departments take their mission statements seriously. A mission statement describes the purpose of the department, its values and beliefs; the business it is in and the strategy to carry out that business.

The vision statement is a bit different. It is a picture of the future. It describes how the department and the community will be improved, changed or different if the department achieves its purpose. This is why it is so important to take the time to create a mission that truly reflects the exact nature of your particular department and the people in it. For example, if fire prevention and education are a significant part of the mission, make sure that the department’s goals, actions and budgets really reflect this. I use prevention and education because many departments pay lip service to prevention and education, but fall short in action.

This brings us to the department’s vision. The vision statement articulates how the department will make the community safer through its mission. Think of it this way: mission is who we are, what we do and why we do it. Vision is what the situation will look like as we do what our mission tells us to do. The key here is to believe in and to act the mission every minute. While turning out for a call at 3 A.M., you should be able to say the mission and vision to anyone who asks. There is one key, critical reason for this: every decision you make should use the mission and vision as a filtering device. It’s like north on a compass. You will be in a much better position to make good decisions on the fireground, in the community and for the department’s future.

While preparing for a recent meeting with one of this country’s leading fire service organizations, I spent time going over its strategic plan. There were nine major organizational goals with a significant number of actions or strategies attached to each goal. Seven of the major goals were marketing-related and well over half of the strategies and actions had some significant relation to the marketing mechanism.

Just like every other significant public service, we in the fire service live in a fish bowl. We must justify every action that we take. When we work our plans well, our constituencies support and applaud us. The marketing plan can begin with a clear understanding of the department’s strategic plan, focusing on those goals that apply to the internal welfare of the department and the public. I usually look for key terms like enhance customer service and outreach, strengthen budget and financial positions, increase communications, enhance public education and prevention, strengthen relationships and public awareness,

Change and adaptation define the plan in action. It has almost become a trite expression that the future of most strategic and marketing plans lies in three-ring binders on executives’ shelves. Don’t make that a true statement in your department.

Over the past 20 years, I have been involved in creating strategic and business plans for private enterprise, fire departments and fire service organizations. It is not difficult to avoid the pitfall of the "ringed binder on the shelf." It all comes down to focus and action. First, the plan should have a small number of goals and objectives. Second, the goals should be long-range and flexible enough to adapt to the changing environment (this means that part of the planning process defines the present and future possible environments). This flexibility means that some objectives may drop out and new ones might become quickly established from what is working in the field now versus a lofty goal from the ivory tower. The mechanism that brings this flexibility to life is a formal feedback loop to gain on-going information from members of the department as well as each stakeholder and community customers. Always be asking "how are we doing and what could we do new or better to serve your needs?" The message is to keep your eye on the mission, ready to change objectives when necessary.

When I was fire commissioner in Woodinville, WA, we established our mission, vision and major goals on a small card that could fit in some kind of device that each member of the department could carry with them. The message is this: proximity of goals equals achievement. If you want to achieve a goal, keep it with you all of the time. You will invariably find yourself referring to it every day and your department and its goals will become part of who you are and what you do to lead your department.

Next time: Establishing the Basics of "Marketing Command"

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, DC. 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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