The Fire Service and Social Media: Time to Get Engaged

By Blake Scott

In Libya, a 100-car convoy speeds across the desert as NATO war planes strike it from above. One car breaks away. It’s carrying Africa’s longest reigning dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and a few of his loyal bodyguards. They don’t make it far. Pursued by armed rebels on the ground and barraged by missiles from the warplanes circling above, Gaddafi is captured and killed within minutes. One year later, half way across the world in Newark, New Jersey, Hurricane Sandy has left an American family desperate for supplies. Suddenly, there’s a knock at their door. They open it to find the mayor of Newark, Corey Booker, standing on the doorstep with all the supplies they need in hand. What is it, you are certainly wondering, that connects these seemingly unrelated events? The answer is social media. From helping to topple a tyrant in Libya to enabling the mayor of Newark to deliver relief supplies directly to his constituents, there is no question that social media has changed the world we live in.

But change is a double-edged sword: It rewards those who are flexible and able to adapt to the new environment just as it punishes those who cannot or will not adapt. History is littered with cautionary tales about the failure to adapt to a changed environment. For instance, when, in the 1800s, the Chinese Empire refused to modernize its military by adopting European technology, it was soon defeated in war and colonized by European countries. On the other hand, the Japanese saw the writing on the wall, modernized their military by adopting European technology, and remained free from foreign domination. This lesson – adapt or die – is just as relevant for public safety services in America in 2012 as it was for China and Japan all those years ago. Social media has changed the world, and now the fire service must make a choice: adapt to the new environment or face some unpleasant consequences in the years to come.

If the fire service is to remain relevant, competitive, and a political winner in today’s world of shrinking budgets and austerity programs, we must embrace social media and use it to strengthen our relationship with the public. Of course, as with anything, there are benefits and costs associated with adopting a new technology; but if used in a strategic and professional way, the benefits of social media far outweigh the costs. Before we get to that, however, it is important to take a step back to gain a clear understanding of what social media is and just how important it has become in American life and business. Therefore, I will begin by giving a brief overview of the various types of social media platforms currently being used and the impact they are having on both private business and public sector institutions. After that, I will explain the benefits that social media can offer the fire service and address potential concerns and problems associated with its use. Finally, I will look at a few broad principles that should go into crafting your department’s social media plan, so that when you’re ready to make the change, it can do so in a responsible and problem free manner.

What is Social Media?

From school yards to the oval office, social media has become one of the primary means of communication for Americans of all walks of life. However, the speed of the so called ‘social media revolution’ has left many of the less tech savvy scratching their heads and wondering what exactly it’s all about. The easiest way to understand what social media is, is to first breakdown the terms individually, and only then read them in combination. Social, as we already know, means companionship and interaction with others in a community. Media, which we often think of as meaning television news or newspapers, actually refers to any means of communication that can widely reach or influence people. Put together, social media refers to Web- or mobile-based means of mass communication which also allows for social interaction. As opposed to traditional media, such as television or newspapers, which moves information in one direction–from the media source to the individual (as in watching a news report on TV or reading an article in the newspaper)–social media is a two-way street, moving information between the news source, the individual, and the broader community in the form of interaction and dialogue.

The best known and most powerful examples of social media are Facebook and Twitter, but the term social media is really a catchall for any online or mobile communication technology that stresses interactivity between individuals, groups, or organizations. One of the easiest ways to understand what social media is and what it does is to understand what it is not–that is, to compare social media tools with the traditional or ‘old’ media tools they have come to replace. For instance, the blog, a Web site where users record news and opinions, is the social media equivalent of traditional newspapers and magazines; Youtube and other online video-sharing sites can be thought of as the social media equivalent of television; podcasts, which are downloadable audio files, fill the role traditionally played by radio; and Skype and other VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) services which allow users to speak to one another over the Internet, have stepped in as the digital replacement for the telephone. Yet, although many social media tools have clear counterparts in the traditional media, there are some, such as Twitter and Facebook, which do not have an obvious old media counterpart. Even so, these services share the same core features as the others we have discussed–they all, in different ways, stress social interaction between individuals, communities, and organizations.

Now that we have a clear grasp of what social media is and how it works, we are in a better position to understand how it has changed the way that private and public organizations interact with their customer bases, constituents, and shareholders. Appreciating the sheer size and power of social media audiences, private and public organizations alike now take the technology seriously, and most are engaged in aggressive campaigns to use social media tools to market their products, services, and themselves. In the past, marketing and outreach relied on the one-way flow of information (that is, through traditional media like television, radio, newspapers campaigns); social media marketing by contrast, embraces the two-way flow of information by putting organizations in direct and continued interaction with their customers through interactive dialogue. Social media marketing, therefore, focuses more on the relationship between the customer and the organization, allowing for the sharing of information and interaction that was never possible with traditional media. Just imagine the lively communities that spring up naturally when consumers flock to an organization’s Facebook page or Twitter account to give testimonials, offer feedback, ask questions, make comments, or look to communicate with like-minded individuals, and you’ll have a clear grasp of what social media marketing is all about.

Reaping Social Media Rewards

At this point, you are probably convinced that social media has become a powerful new force in American life, but you’re still wondering how it relates to the mission of the fire service. The answer is that social media represents a revolutionary new way for the fire service to engage and build trusting relationships with the public it serves. This answer may give you pause. In fact, you may be thinking that even though building a better relationship with the public is a great idea, it hardly merits the “adapt or die” level of urgency found in this article. The fire service, after all, is fundamentally different from a private business because if a business fails to adapt, it loses customers and is driven into bankruptcy. The fire service, by contrast, faces no such threat, since the public doesn’t pay us directly for our services. However, this way of thinking is not only mistaken, but it is also dangerous to our long-term survival. The reality is that the fire service faces competitive pressures every bit as real as private businesses; the only difference is that our customers buy our services at the voting booth instead of the cash register. When we fail to keep the public informed or happy, or when we lose their confidence, we pay a heavy price on Election Day; and when cash strapped, city officials, who have recently taken to portraying firefighters as a pampered class, look for ways to slash our budget. It is no secret that public trust and happiness in our government are at historic lows; nor is it a secret that budget slashing and austerity are the new normal in America’s sluggish, post-financial crisis economy. As a result, it is increasingly difficult to ensure that our budgets are protected and that our image, so carefully crafted over generations, remains a political winner. It is, therefore, more important than ever that the fire service embrace social media as a new way to foster public outreach and engagement. Just this year in my home district, an important levy lid lift was defeated by four votes. I can’t help but think that if our department had engaged in a community outreach campaign via social media that the levy would have been passed by a reasonably wide margin. Of course, elections and levies aren’t won by brilliant social-media strategies alone, but without such a strategy, we leave our collective futures much more in the hands of chance.

Greater access and connection to the public and local community is the first and most important benefit that social media offers the fire service. The idea is that platforms like Facebook and Twitter can bring the public together around the fire service’s work and public outreach efforts; this, in turn, greatly expands access to and interaction with the local community. Gone are the days when community outreach and public relations could only take the forms of open houses, prevention programs, or school visits; today, the most effective, fastest, and even the most personal community outreach can be done in cyberspace. When a member of the public visits your department’s Facebook page he will find important news, photos, videos, job postings, and links. Most importantly, however, they will discover an open forum where they can converse about issues relevant to your community with members of the department and other individuals from around the community.

Similarly, Twitter can be both an indispensable life-saving tool (the Fire Department of New York’s Twitter account became a lifeline for many stranded New Yorkers during hurricane Sandy) and a means to encourage greater public engagement. By watching for and responding to mentions of your department, you can interact with community members in real time. Furthermore, Twitter can be used to reward those who spread a positive message (often with a simple expression of gratitude) and to head off negative publicity or concerns by reaching out to unhappy citizens to help resolve their issues, or at a minimum show that their opinion has merit and has been taken into consideration. Together, Facebook and Twitter represent a new and innovative way for the fire service to get its message out and build a closer relationship with the public.

Your department’s social media presence and newfound access to the community should be leveraged to achieve a number of core goals, such as increasing visibility, strengthening customer service, enhancing transparency, and quickly disseminating important information. Ultimately, all of these will impact your relationship with the community in a positive way. For instance, you can increase your visibility simply by letting your Twitter followers or Facebook friends know what your station or district is working on or what events you are planning. The result is that when an important initiative or major event occurs, members of your social network are likely to share this information with their friends and families who may also be interested community members. The more interaction with your friends and followers, the more exposure you can gain as they share your business with others. Similarly, increasing transparency, or rather, letting the public see their tax dollars in action, is an excellent way to build trust and ensure the community that their money is not being wasted. This can take the form of videos or photos of firefighters on the job or simply posting information about training sessions and professional development activities.

Finally, the ability to quickly disseminate important information in real time can be a huge boon to your department. Today, there is no quicker way to get important information to the public than through social media platforms. Some departments have done an excellent job of taking advantage of this new tool. In Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Fire Department runs two separate, specialized Twitter accounts: one for important news alerts and another which is reserved for communication and interaction with the public. Likewise, the FDNY won major plaudits in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy for its use of social media in aiding in the rescue effort. Emily Rahimi, the department’s social media manager, spent the night responding to Tweets from New York citizens who couldn’t get through to overwhelmed 911 dispatchers. The story was eventually picked up by CNN, who noted that the Twitter response had won the department “a flurry of praise” from the public. With the proper goals in place, social media can be a powerful way to market your department and create a network of supporters.

“If you build it, they will come” — or so the saying goes. But, is this true of social media? Will the public simply show up once you’ve established an online presence? The answer seems to be yes. Public demand to engage with private business and public agencies over social media is quite strong; hence, all the fire service must do is meet them half way. Unfortunately, according to Jamie Thompson of the magazine FireRescue1, only 14 percent of departments in the United States have a Facebook page and only two percent use Facebook to deliver public information messages. This represents an enormous lost opportunity for the fire service.

Across the country, Americans have turned to social media platforms (especially blogs, Facebook, and Twitter) to share the experiences they are having with businesses and public agencies in the form of personal testimonials on blogs, comments on an organization’s Facebook walls, and, of course, via their Tweets. This type of free publicity is something that the fire service should capitalize on – because like a ripple in a pond, one positive blog/Facebook post, or Tweet travels outward, reaching the user’s friends, families, and various other members of the public. Much like positive word-of-mouth, this “hare-ripple” travels far beyond the individual who initiated it, potentially increasing the social status of the departments as it moves outward. This is important because such positive word-of-mouth helps to establish loyalty and a stronger feeling of connection to the local fire service. Furthermore, engaging in two-way conversations with citizens builds stronger ties and increases loyalty. As the department listens to the public and demonstrates concern by responding to their ideas and comments, citizens come to trust and feel more of a personal connection to the department. Ultimately, engaging the “social customer” creates a stronger bond between the public and the organization and improves loyalty. A robust social media presence can, therefore, increase the visibility of your department through the ripple effect, and it can draw the public into a closer relationship with the department.

Avoiding Social Media Pitfalls and Problems

It is an old truism that new opportunities also pose new dangers. For all the potential benefits social media offers the fire service, it also carries some very real dangers. It is important, therefore, to always be sure that the unrestricted, real-time access to the public offered by social media is used in a strategic and professional way. For every LAFD and FDNY social media success story, there seems to be an equal and opposite horror story whereby social media misuse lands a department in hot water. For instance, in various scandals around the country, firefighters have aired dirty laundry about the department’s inner workings, engaged in inappropriate dialogue with members of the public, and some have even unknowingly posted private information publically, such as showing an accident victim’s face or uploading screen shots that included patients’ addresses and social security numbers. How can we avoid these very public and very embarrassing missteps? The first and most effective line of defense is creating and implementing a carefully designed social media policy and enforcing a simple and easily understood code of conduct. These steps aren’t just about establishing the boundaries of appropriateness and good taste; they are also necessary measures to protect your department legally. Though it is beyond the scope of this article to offer a detailed, or one-size-fits-all, social media policy (in fact, social media policy is probably best designed by each department since it knows its community and its needs best); however, by implementing the policy guidelines and code of conduct rules described below, your department can reduce the risk of public embarrassment or legal fallout dramatically.

The first pillar of a good social media policy is to address, regulate, and authorize the content that is acceptable to post on your department’s social media accounts. When, in the past, departments have had problems related to inappropriate use or the accidental sharing of confidential information, it has typically been caused by a lack of clear guidelines for acceptable use or an established code of conduct. Frequently, younger firefighters who are very familiar with the use of social media in their personal lives are too cavalier or casual in their interactions with the public; this has led to embarrassing and sometimes even costly outcomes if a victim’s privacy is violated. What is needed, then, is a clearly defined set of regulations and rules that govern content-appropriate use of the department’s social media activity. Like any other policy, clear rules and an enforcement mechanism are crucial; users must know the appropriateness guidelines well and be aware of the disciplinary actions that will result if the guidelines are not adhered to.

Developing a policy that fits with your department’s practices can seem like a daunting task; yet, there is a wide array of resources already available online. A good starting point is to review other departments’ policies, which are readily available online. When crafting a policy for your department, it is also important to bring together various stakeholders who have expertise in their respective domains. For instance, it is wise to consult with an authority who understands the legal implications of sharing information, such as an attorney or a member of the Information technology department. Additionally, your department will need to include the users and operators of the social media accounts in the policy discussion because only they understand how to properly utilize the technology. Taken together, developing a code of conduct and a clear set of rules and regulations will ensure that potentially embarrassing mistakes are kept to a bare minimum and that the reputation of your department is not put in jeopardy.

Another potential worry about introducing social media is the cost–not just the money spent paying an employee to manage the accounts, but also the opportunity cost, the time that is necessarily taken away from doing other tasks and instead spent posting, reading, responding, and generally tending to the constant flow of information moving back and forth on your social media accounts. After all, the last thing you want is for your department to draw the public to you, only to abandon them; this would give the impression that your department is aloof and out touch, exactly the sentiments you’re trying to avoid. It is certainly true that managing a social media presence requires time and personnel. Moreover, unlike the LAFD and FDNY, most departments face budget constraints such that they cannot afford to hire a public information officer whose sole duty is to oversee social media activities. Yet, there are numerous ways to minimize such costs and even avoid hiring any new personnel. One way to cut the time required to manage your social media presence is to choose the platforms your department wants to use strategically. Twitter, geared toward immediate notifications, requires far more effort and vigilance to maintain than other platforms like Facebook, which is built around a virtual community. On Facebook, interactions occur at a slower pace and, therefore, require far less day-to-day maintenance. If your department wants to create a social media presence but is worried about limited personnel, focusing on only one platform is an excellent way to use your resources more efficiently.

Another option for conserving resources is to have the staff that happens to be on duty at the time monitor the social media program. Of course, although this saves money and time, it also presents a problem of accountability: Should anyone on duty be able to post whatever they want? This seems like the type of scenario in which embarrassing mistakes might occur. To offset the possibility of errors being made, your department will need an individual placed in charge of overseeing and clearing posts made while on shift. A number of departments have addressed this problem by training a handful of staff to run and manage the social media accounts. With proper knowledge of departmental policy and code of conduct, these individuals then act as gate-keepers in the communication process. When other staff members want to use the social media account, the content must first be cleared by one of these so called gate keepers. This type of insurance policy stresses accountability and helps to ensure that no potentially embarrassing or harmful information finds its way onto the Web. There can be no doubt that stepping into the world of social media presents some risk, but, as we have seen, with the proper foresight and policy in place, costs can be reduced and most risks can largely be mitigated.

One final, but serious, social media pitfall concerns the issue of free speech. Recently, the Baltimore (MD) Fire Department has come under scrutiny for implementing new rules that restrict what firefighters can post on social media sites. After the city attempted to balance the budget on the backs of the local fire service, firefighters used social media to make their displeasure known–criticizing the mayor, fire chief, and local officials via Facebook and Twitter accounts. Although officials have denied that the policy changes are a direct response to these criticisms, most firefighters believe they are; what’s more, many have claimed these policies are an attempt to limit their right to freedom of speech.

Although a majority of Baltimore’s firefighters understand the necessity of the rule prohibiting on-duty firefighters from posting about matters of public concern, most take serious issue with the new, overly broad rule restricting their online activity even when they are off duty. This policy has sparked outrage and piqued the interest of the local media. My point here is not to comment on the legality or wisdom the Baltimore Fire Department’s policy (although I have a strong personal opinion) but rather to stress the importance of designing a policy that has buy-in from all the relevant stakeholders. Ensuring that employees, up and down the chain of command, have input and are onboard with the rules and regulations is imperative. All involved must be made to understand that these rules and regulations are necessary tools to protect the organization, its workers, and the public and that any speech which impairs performance, damages the image of the department, or creates a hostile work environment has to be sanctioned. Luckily, a Baltimore style free speech showdown is easy to avoid so long as your department allows, encourages, and motivates employees to have input in crafting your social media policy.

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The great financial crisis of 2008 ushered in a new, cutthroat economic landscape in the United States. Revenues at the state and local level dropped drastically as the recession kicked into high gear; meanwhile, austerity-minded politicians pulled out their red pens and went on a budget-slashing crusade. As a result, spending by state and local governments has declined for seven consecutive quarters. In the post-recession landscape of scarcity, the fire service has lost its immunity to the politics of belt tightening. A simple Google search yields story after story about severe departmental budget cuts across the country. Headlines like “San Bernardino slashes $2.9 million from Fire Department budget” and “KC budget cuts Fire Department by $7.6 million” fill up page after page of search engine results. With fire department budgets being slashed all around the nation, it is high time that we cease to be passive observers and become proactively engaged before it’s too late. A social media offensive that allows your department to connect, engage, and establish a trusting relationship with the local community is an important first step in protecting your budget and your job. The endgame of a social media campaign produces a win-win situation: it allows your department to serve the needs of the community more effectively, and it helps to ensure that when voters confront levy lids at the polls and politicians sit down with their red pens, your budget is safer than it otherwise would be. After all, the public is unlikely to vote down a measure to fund their beloved local heroes at the fire service; similarly, politicians will have to think twice before slashing the budget of your widely popular department. In all the ways we’ve detailed, a forward thinking social media strategy can help your department make this picture a reality.

And so, the stage is set. The actors: city officials, governors, the budget, the great recession, and the fire service. There are two paths we can take: the one we are on today, in which an aloof, unengaged, and unchanging fire service continues in its old ways. By continuing to reject one of the prime forms of contemporary communication today, the fire service will find its budget time and time again offered up as a sacrificial victim to the recession. This is the path to downsizing to lost jobs to reduced benefits and training and to lower pay–it is the path to an unsafe and unhappy community. Then, there is the other choice–the path of proactive engagement and social media adoption. There is no question that this path will be more difficult at first because it involves mobilizing for change, and change is always resisted by those who see it as a threat to their ability to control the environment around them. Yet, just as a trip to the dentist is a necessary but painful experience, adopting social media as a new avenue of community engagement is also an initially painful but necessary step to ensure the long-term health of the fire service. This path leads to safe budgets to safe jobs to protected pensions–most importantly it leads to a safe and happy community. So choose a path, and choose wisely. The choice is yours.

Blake Scott is a firefighter with North Whatcom (WA) Fire & Rescue. He also works with Homeland Security/FEMA as a reports writing specialist under the external affairs cadre. 

 

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