By Tim Hyden
As a young child I remember picking vegetables out of my grandmother’s garden, setting up a little table and chair near the road at the end of her driveway, and arranging the vegetables neatly in a row on the table. I then propped up my “Vegetables for Sale” sign and waited for my first customer–and waited and waited and waited. As car after car drove by, my enthusiasm for great wealth began to wane.
Eventually, my grandmother, certainly affectionately smiling at my effort, dutifully helped me gather up my unsold inventory and trudge back up to the house. Though the vegetables rarely went to waste, I remember being so disappointed that no one else seemed to see the potential of my idea with the same enthusiasm as I.
Later in life, married and with a small child at home, I toiled at how I could convince customers to ask for me when they entered the showroom door of the auto dealership where I worked as a salesperson. Being on straight commission–meaning if you don’t sell, you don’t get paid–it was imperative that I find a way to make myself stand out against the other salespeople. Anyone who has ever had a similar experience certainly understands my meaning.
In both of these examples, the solution to the vastly different, but very similar, issue was marketing–in the first case, marketing a tangible product (the vegetables) and in the second case, marketing myself and customer service. The fire service is similar in so many ways.
FIRE SERVICE TODAY
I’m sure it is not news to anyone that today’s fire service is vastly different from what it was 10 or even five years ago. The economic downturn and the resulting loss of tax revenue has, like water evaporating from a lake, exposed what lies beneath the perception of fire service invincibility that is (or was) embraced by so many. In many cases, organizations that perhaps did not create and pay into a “community equity account,” when adequate funding and an abundance of public support would have allowed them to do so, have paid a heavy price through a loss of benefits, training budgets, and personnel. In too many cases, we have failed to recognize the value of a positive public perception of who we are and what we do. I’m as tired as anyone of hearing the term “hero-to-zero,” but I can’t help but wonder if we may have created, or at least allowed, that perception through a lack of preparation and maintenance of our reputation.
Fire service marketing involves so much more than station tours and handing out plastic fire helmets to kids at a birthday party. In fact, if we intend to change the way we are looked at by an ever-increasingly critical public, the first step is to consider changing the way we look at ourselves. The entire organization has to understand and be onboard with the idea. The good news is, once up and running, an effective marketing plan can help get things back on track and keep them there.
Begin by looking at what type of planning has been done and if the plan is being followed. Strategic planning is as simple or as complicated as an organization makes it; in fact, I’ve seen many five-year strategic plans that were fewer than a dozen pages long. The point is to have something, preferably in writing that can, first, define and then track the directional progress of an organization. The marketing plan comes after and becomes part of the strategic plan.
A marketing plan, like a strategic plan, need not be complicated. The process often begins by conducting a thorough and sometimes painfully honest internal evaluation of the organization. Having administration onboard without cooperation of the line staff or having line staff commitment while an unwavering administration prevents any real progress will kill the motivation needed to run a successful marketing program before it has a chance to get off the ground. Also, it is important to realize early on that it is the people, particularly the line staff, who are the key to a successful marketing effort. I have often said that our personnel hold the unique role of being both the product we want to promote and the means by which it is promoted. We are, after all, a service profession, and it is our people who provide that service.
EXAMPLES AND IDEAS
The actual action of marketing an organization can be as obvious as holding an open house with balloons, hot dogs, and face painting for the kids to being as subtle as showing honest and heartfelt compassion on an emergency call when someone has lost a loved one. I can recall occasions over the years spending a few minutes to express my sympathy to a surviving husband or wife, especially the elderly, as they realized that a spouse they’d been with for perhaps 50 or 60 years was gone; sometimes, I stayed until another family member or friend arrived.
Other methods might include working with the media to provide pertinent public information, holding safety seminars or workshops, writing a periodic “chief’s column” in the local newspaper, or conducting public assistance projects. These efforts show the public our worth, and doing so creates a great sense of pride within the organization.
Our people have a right to be proud of themselves and what they do and represent. Marketing provides that opportunity. Don’t stop them by ignoring this very useful concept.
Here again, as with planning, the action of doing is so much more important than the plan itself. Getting out and determining where the problems are, developing a strategy and action plan to resolve the situations through prevention, and following up to show that we honestly care will go a long way in helping to improve the perception our public may have of us–and while we’re at it, allowing our personnel to hold their heads a little higher as they represent their organization and our fire service.
Tim Hyden is the training and safety officer for East Manatee (FL) Fire Rescue and a 19-year veteran of the Florida fire service. He has an associate degree in fire science and an advanced technical certificate in fire science administration. He is a graduate of the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association Emergency Services Leadership Institute. He holds several state certifications through the Florida Bureau of Fire Standards and Training; is a contributing writer to Florida Fire Service and Fire Engineering magazines; and speaks on leadership, motivation, officer development, risk management, and marketing.