“The Four Ps”: Part 3 – Promotion

April 1, 2004
Question: What does ?promotion? mean as applied to fire protection and emergency services? This word sounds self-serving and aggressive.

Answer: This is a great question and when posed in an aggressive ?in your face? approach, the definition can be misleading. However, that is why there is a definite difference between commercial and public service marketing.

The word promotion has several meanings. We all know that this is the magic word for which we all study so hard. Promotion moves us up the career ladder. It can mean ?blowing one?s own horn? about one?s accomplishments. However, the term has a much more subtle meaning, especially when applied to a public service. For our purposes, it means interpreting to the public. Promotion is your department?s public face. And, by its place in your community, promotion is the public face of the entire U.S. fire service.

Over the past few months, we have been learning a short version of Marketing 101 or ?the four Ps?: place, product, promotion and price. This month, we tackle the public portion of marketing. Books have been written on this subject, so we will stick to the basics.

This is the one area that most people believe is marketing. This is the place where what we say and what we do meets our customers. This is also where much confusion exists between commercial and public service marketing.

The promotion of a public service has three objectives:

There is a vast difference between this kind of promotion and that of private enterprise. First, strategic private or commercial marketing (especially these days) strives to differentiate products and services from others, both generally and among products in their categories. For example, Pepsi is different from Coke. Second, it attempts to induce multiple purchases. Remember when drinking a soft drink in the morning was a bit strange? The point is that commercial promotion is intended to persuade the consumer to use the product or service in as many ways as possible consistently. This creates repeat sales to boost revenue and shareholder profit.

Education is involved when it comes to more sophisticated products like wine or especially business-to-business products and services. IBM pioneered this approach many years ago. While IBM?s computers were not necessarily state of the art, its training and service were phenomenal. The education gives the product a certain value and credibility. It also is a strategic part of the marketing plan because it retains customers. After all, they have now been trained on IBM computers. Another brand means a potential disruption in business and retraining.

When I was a rookie firefighter, I received mask training on a particular company?s equipment. When my department decided to use another manufacturer?s products as well, it was uncomfortable at first. Consider the various kinds of equipment that we use ? from apparatus to turnouts. The best companies have strong and complete educational and informational service programs.

Education, training and information require proximity. We are around the people associated with the product or service. A couple of columns ago, I wrote, ?proximity breeds sales.? There is usually some good relationship building during training, so the trainer is delivering a service. He or she is usually not a salesperson, but a technical expert. Additionally, there is usually a good follow-up and customer service plan. And herein lies the effectiveness of the promotion.

We receive a ?packaged? product or service. Some may refer to it as a ?system.? This is all promotion. The market does not stand still. Look at Dell computers. They have led us away from the IBM ?packaged? educational approach from years ago. You can buy a Dell computer online like buying a book from Amazon.

As the customer becomes educated, the need for training diminishes. This is an important observation to keep in mind when we market the fire service. However, we have an edge. We have many areas in which to educate the public and we must educate all of the market, not just some of it. So we have the need (just as private enterprise does) to segment our market. Public fire and safety educators do this intuitively by age, gender, socioeconomic status, geographically and by type of problem (i.e. falls, accidents, types of fires, etc.).

The Promotion Mix

The promotion mix is the complete communications program. It is the dynamic part of a fire department?s marketing or communications plan. In private enterprise, it consists of advertising, personal selling, sales promotion and public relations. In the public sector, it may involve most of these. Additionally, educating and informing are critical for the public sector, so we may use speakers, the media, public forums, workshops, seminars, meetings, public events and publications.

Advertising. Advertising is an impersonal form of communication about ideas, products or services paid for by identified sponsors. This may take many forms such as mass media, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, direct mail, billboards, cards, handbills, Internet pop-ups and ribbons.

The pervasiveness of advertising has become a growing problem. It has become so encroaching into the lives of people that its effectiveness continues to diminish. This presents possibilities for the fire service because our messages do not sell products and are seen more as ?real news we can use.? Our advertising is a public service, so it has the opportunity to gain interest and deliver a message for the good of the customer, not just to sell a widget the customer may or may not need.

The question for advertising is whether it is effective. The answer is usually found in market research to determine whether the public took an action based on the ad. It is the most visible face of the promotional mix, usually the most expensive and delivered to reach mass audiences with a standardized message. (For those interested in receiving 10 quick guidelines for public service ads that work, send me a note at [email protected] and I will send you the information.)

Personal selling. Personal selling is one of the more effective tools in the promotion mix, but it is expensive and its reach is limited. In the public sector, personal selling involves every moment of face-to-face interaction when we have a message we wish to convey to another for an action in our favor. It is not as expensive as in the private sector because of our proximity to our customers in their neighborhoods and businesses, as well as by the nature and number of our calls. This is the personal approach to relationship management and, in my opinion, the best. It is difficult and requires a number of skills dealing with interpersonal communications.

Any fire service person who wants to make a significant impact on his or her department and the community must understand the basics of personal selling. These skills involve understanding the needs of the department and those of the public by priority. It then involves demonstrating how those needs can be met through the program or services your section or department offers. Personal selling is used during inspections, at the fire scene and on all EMS calls. It is especially crucial at the senior-officer level during budget discussions and in gaining political support at the national level.

Personal selling is the last frontier of economic growth in the private sector and it paves the way for innovation and progress in the public sector. If you want to understand marketing, learn personal selling first. Remember who you are and what you represent.

Public affairs. Let?s use the term ?public affairs? instead of ?public relations.? In our profession, we are always relating ?publicly.? It?s as plain as the badge on your chest. Public affairs is divided into two areas: public information and media marketing.

Public information relates to the facts of an incident provided to the media. Media marketing relates to the placement of messages in the media in a coordinated effort for promotional purposes. The tools we use to get our message across are better than advertising because it is usually the daily news. This is why the position of public information officer (PIO) is becoming so important in any department. It is becoming critical that a PIO have some background and even a professional track record in marketing.

The PIO is the ?sector commander? for marketing in general and for the promotion mix in particular. Fire safety education officers contribute critical elements to the promotions mix and are probably among the best marketers in the fire service. Use them, heed their advice, ask for their participation.

Media marketing. Every element of the media can be used for our message. We can use radio, newspapers, the Internet or TV and we can usually build our message around an incident such as a major building fire or a hazardous materials spill.

Media marketing is a powerful instrument when part of a comprehensive strategy. Articles relating to a particular problem or a broad issue can be effective when offering a tangible benefit. Most media outlets are searching for new stories dealing with important issues. It is up to you to provide the promotional content to gain the attention you want.

Public forums and seminars. This is a growing area of the promotion mix, especially suited for the fire and emergency services. This is because we usually attract a crowd with our equipment and our personnel in uniform. When we work with other agencies such as the American Red Cross and police and in partnership with private enterprise, we can usually bring in quite a few interested people.

The Internet. One of the most promising media for promoting public services is the Internet. Some of the positive aspects of personal selling contribute to the potential success of this medium. Every marketer would like to have the ability to ?speak? to its customers in a manner that customizes the communication to the specific needs of each. This is called ?one-to-one marketing,? and will be addressed in a future column. The advantage of this medium is the ability to focus on particular segments of the market and to receive consistent feedback. This is also called ?permission marketing.? Using the Internet, departments can fashion promotional and educational programs for target hazard segments of the public. It also offers the ability to get the message out to many, many people at one time, immediately.

Types of Messages

There are three basic kinds of messages (with many, many variations):

1. Rational appeals relate to the self interest of the target public. These messages are based on quality of life, performance, economy or value. An example is an appeal to clear one?s house in a wildland/urban interface.

2. Emotional appeals attempt to activate feelings that motivate action. In years past, some departments used the ?burning baby? message for budget increases. This is an example of an approach that might work once, but the long-term result is a deterioration in credibility. I do not suggest it.

This kind of approach can be effective when done intelligently. An example was a large ad in the Denver Post showing fresh water flowing from a faucet with the caption, ?This fresh water brought to you by the Denver Fire Department.? The point was that the fire department took environmental concerns into consideration when dealing with runoff from fire calls or hazmat spills. Think of the different messages the ad conveys: a responsible, professional fire department. The fire chief at the time, Richard Gonzales, was one of the more innovative chiefs in the area of marketing.

3. Moral appeals, many of which are used for fund raising.

The promotion mix is the single most important part of the marketing plan beside the strategy itself. It requires thought, preparation and creativity because in the end its results ensure the safety of the public while informing it of the benefits of the fire and emergency services.


  • Fine, Seymour. Marketing the Public Sector.
  • Grodin, Seth. Permission Marketing.
  • Murphy, Dallas. The Fast Forward MBA in Marketing.
  • Rados, David L. Advertising in the Social Sector.
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 [email protected].

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