Reputation Equity

Sept. 29, 2011
  Remember that overused line, “Happiness is wanting what you have”? Funny about how some of these old saws hang around for so long. I suppose it’s probably because there may be a grain of truth in them.

Remember that overused line, “Happiness is wanting what you have”? Funny about how some of these old saws hang around for so long. I suppose it’s probably because there may be a grain of truth in them.

I remember in my 20s asking my dad, who was in his 60s at the time, how he defined success for himself as a businessman in Oklahoma City. He told me that no matter what he was doing, he always considered himself to be the luckiest guy in the world – in business or in anything else. He called it “the May Luck” after our family’s last name. In fact, people marveled at his enthusiasm about almost everything and everybody. So he told me that with a tiny bit of skill and practice, coupled with copious amounts of this enthusiasm, he just naturally gravitated to the next level of responsibility. And I told my son, Nicholas, and my daughter, Caroline, the same thing. Guess what? Same thing happened to them: “The May Luck.” Right…

If you think about it, having what you want is a neat kind of phrase to keep you grounded in the reality of the present. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more of something or a promotion in the profession, but a certain sense of satisfaction at every level along the way actually paves the way for reaching the next step of a particular goal.

The Opportunity Our Profession Provides

Firefighters are in the enviable position of being what they want as they do what they want. Recently, I met with a fire chief who has more than 30 years in a department with a consistently great reputation. I could see the satisfaction in his eyes as he described some of the challenges he continues to face and the issues he deals with daily, but the overall sense I got was one of pure love.

I remember reading an article by the management and leadership guru Gary Hammel (“The Hole in the Soul of Business,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 10, 2010) in which he spoke of a cartoon in The New Yorker magazine showing an office worker slumped against a wall, clutching his chest. As worried associates rushed to aid the stricken employee, he mumbled: “Don’t worry; it was just a fleeting sense of purpose.”

Hammel goes on to cite a survey that found only 20% of employees are truly engaged in work – heart and soul. He notes that the respondents laid much of the blame on uncommunicative and egocentric managers. However, Hammel wonders “if there is not some deeper organizational reality that bleeds the vitality and enthusiasm out of people at work.” In a content analysis, he notes phrases in so many annual reports of businesses – words like superiority, high-performance, leadership, differentiation, value, focus, discipline, stockholder equity, accountability and efficiency. These words are just fine as far as they go, he notes, but such platitudes do not “quicken the pulse.” This is not a ding on corporate America. There are so many fine companies with great missions and roles, no question. They are the life-blood of our economy. Finally, Hammel notes, “A noble purpose inspires sacrifice, stimulates innovation and encourages perseverance. It transforms great talent into exceptional accomplishment.”

In the fire service, these are not just words. Firefighters must live them every day. This means remembering who you are and what you represent, coupled with what you do.

The “Market”For Marketing

The world of marketing is shrinking every day as communication becomes cluttered beyond all recognition. The average American receives approximately 4,000 marketing messages daily, according to the America Advertising Association. If you consider the draw of our Blackberries and iPhones, we have come to the point of having the attention span of a gnat. When you add the attention the Internet commands, you can see there is a crisis in communication for marketers because the receiver is overwhelmed with messages.

So what does all of this have to do with the fire service and you, the firefighter? It means we have an amazing opportunity, but for now, we are in a crisis. Many of us have heard that translation of the Chinese character for crisis: “dangerous opportunity.” We have challenges before us, no question. We need to get out of our own way as we grapple with innovative ways to deliver our service for the public’s protection. And, make no mistake, we can waste no time in figuring out how to do this or we will not be in business. We will not have what we want, but rest assured someone else will. Private firms will figure out the equation for fire and life-safety protection.

The Reputation Equity Of a Noble Calling

We have the reputation of pursuing a noble calling. We possess the brand: fire department. In marketing terms, brand equity is what we say we are. It is the value we place on our service and our particular organization or brand. This helps define how people recognize us.

In the case of the fire service, each fire department expresses who we are and how we do business. This is not just true in your own community. It is true for the entire country. What a responsibility and what an opportunity! However, there is another, growing issue that we must address and consistently manage: our reputation. I call it reputation equity and I am going to write and talk about it quite a bit in the future.

This idea of managing a reputation is new. We can even begin to measure its equity or value in its marketing effectiveness, but it is as long-standing as our civilization; and more necessary now than ever. In 2010, the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association sponsored the creation of White Paper: Fire Service Reputation Management (go to and click on the white paper link). The white paper cites the erosion of the fire service’s reputation in terms of its ethics. The document notes problems in the areas of cheating on exams, arson, and misuse of department facilities, funds, information technology and substance abuse.

There is no question these are critical issues we all must face, and they are just a portion of the issues undermining the value of our reputation. As we solve that equity equation, we will be in the correct position to develop critical public, popular and financial support as we innovate to protect the public. It is as important as the survival of the fire service.

The key issue for us now is what other people, particularly the citizens and institutions we protect, feel, say and do about how they see us. We can manage the equity of our reputation only by demanding that our actions match our words. This begins with the personal actions of each and every firefighter lucky enough to have what they want: being a firefighter.

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