Good Public Relations— More Important Than Ever
The difficulty of developing community awareness and support for a fire department is compounded by the communications revolution that has taken place over the past couple of decades. Modern technology has contributed to an information explosion, in which people are constantly being bombarded by information and appeals in many different ways by numerous organizations on hundreds of subjects. The issue, then, is whether the public will tune out or tune in to desirable information about your department.
Even with diminishing resources, the local fire department must nevertheless attempt to influence ideas, attitudes and decisions often in politically sensitive areas such as budgetary allocations and fire codes. Volunteer fire departments which depend on voluntary contributions for all yr part of their revenues must compete with scores of charitable and political interest groups for donations.
What all of these problems point to is the obvious need for good public relations. Most fire departments do try to maintain a good image and positive contacts with the outside world. But, realistically, increased service demands and decreasing revenues often make a major commitment to public relations difficult if not impossible. However, there are some simple, low-cost measures which can be used to improve community awareness with a minimum investment of resources.
What it is
Public relations is the process of getting people to know you, like you and support you. It attempts to create and use positive opportunities for public contact and avoid situat ions which will lead to criticism of the fire department.
At the outset, fire service public relations faces two serious psychological obstacles. First, even though people see big fires on television and in the newspaper, fire is a terrible thing to think about. It is something that happens to the other guy. Other public problems and services, such as crime or libraries, capture more attention and concern. The average citizen tends to be complacent about fire until he needs a fire company.
The second problem relates to the image of the fire fighter, particularly the volunteer. Subjectively, many people have a fairly inaccurate opinion of volunteers and think of fire companies only as social and political clubhouses. Some volunteers by their actions only serve to reinforce this poor image. Some people never remember the rescues and the below-zero fires, but they never forget the volunteer who ran them off the road responding to a trash fire.
Public information officer
A good public relations program must attempt to deal with such problems by providing as much positive information as possible. All activities should be coordinated by a public information officer who should be given the necessary authority and responsibility to carry out such duties. An effective program should have a positive effect on public fire safety education, fund-raising efforts, and recruitment of personnel in the community.
Within the organization, a program should benefit training, motivation and morale among fire fighters. To achieve these internal benefits, the public information officer should try to educate as many members as possible in public relations functions and determine the skills and personalities that will be most useful in the various elements of the program.
Concern for good public relations should begin on the fireground, where the fire department is most visible. The way that fire fighters respond and act on the fire scene can make or break a public image. Fires attract crowds. Many more individuals listen to operations on scanners. All too often, what these citizens see and hear is that the persons who are supposed to be trained professionals in emergency situations are the most excited and disorganized. Running, shouting, swearing or arguing has no place at an alarm.
Another typical fireground public relations blunder involves the failure to wear protective clothing. Aside from the primary issue of safety, fire fighters working in a variety of civilian outfits detract from their image as trained professionals.
After the fire, the fire department can also improve public relations through a variety of techniques. The preparation and distribution of a brochure which provides helpful hints and advice on what to do to recover from the fire (contacting insurance companies, securing properties, getting smoke odors out of clothing, etc.) can be an important aid to victims.
A post-fire visit by a fire officer can help add a personal touch and show interest and concern. The officer can answer any questions that the occupant may have about the fire or fire department activities and can also provide fire prevention information.
What they think
One of the simplest and most useful public relations tools seems to be the post-fire questionnaire. Accompanied by a brief, sympathetic cover letter, the questionnaire provides data on the fire—such as type of fire, time in service and equipment used—filled in by the public information officer. The second section of the questionnaire asks the occupant to rate the performance of the fire department by asking certain simple questions such as: Did the fire fighters handle your emergency efficiently? Did the fire fighters perform the basic salvage and cleanup operations you would expect? Were the fire fighters courteous in the peformance of their duty? Additional comments?
If a fire victim expresses dissatisfaction with some aspect of fire department performance, the situation shouldn’t be ignored—even if the complaint is considered unjustified. That victim can become an influential supporter or a dedicated enemy, depending on how he is treated.
Common sense indicates that bad word-of-mouth advertising is harmful, but now research of the Technical Assistance Research Program, Inc., has measured the effect. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company studied a sample of 175,000 inquiries and complaints the Coca Cola Co. received from consumers in 1980. The results should also apply to fire department public relations.
Persons who complained and got no response or an unsatisfactory response were found to relate the complaint to 9 or 10 other people (who might tell others). In 12 percent of the cases, a complainer told more than 20 friends and associates about the problem. Many people stopped buying Coke. When a person cannot shop for a different fire department, they may be motivated even more to campaign against the department.
If the complaint to Coca Cola was resolved satisfactorily, the average person shared the good news with three or four people.
When inquiries other than complaints were handled well, the person also told three or four others about the good service. An unsatisfactory inquiry handling again caused greater word-of-mouth reaction, and four or five others were told.
The questionnaire technique is simple, direct and inexpensive, and it helps to demonstrate your concern. Usually it is returned with very positive comments and can be posted in the fire station as a morale booster. In many cases it is accompanied by a contribution. Finally, if there was a problem, the questionnaire will provide concrete information on it, which will allow the fire department either to offer an explanation or take corrective action.
Fire station visits by organized groups or just by passersby also provide an excellent chance for public contact because they allow the fire department to explain its operations on a face-to-face, personal basis. Fire personnel should welcome visitors and accompany them on a tour to answer questions and describe equipment. Information should always be geared to the age level of the guests. There is no need to give a fiveyear-old a course in advanced hydraulics. Handouts on fire prevention and the fire department should also be made available for distribution.
Annual door-to-door or direct mail fund drives also can include public relations and fire prevention material. Each year a specific theme or suggestion can be made. For example, residents can be encouraged to install smoke detectors, shovel out nearby hydrants after snowstorms or have house numbers clearly visible for emergency vehicles. Such advice helps to show the fire department is interested in more than just money from the community.
You tell ’em
The development of a fire department speakers bureau can also be a valuable asset. Every community or fire district contains a wide variety of social, religious, fraternal and business organizations who meet regularly and would welcome a guest speaker. A short, well-planned talk on a wide number of topics can be very effective. Movies or slides can also be presented.
One of the most important areas of public relations involves dealing with the news media, which in most cases will be a local daily or weekly newspaper. The public information officer should try to plan a year-long series of news releases covering a variety of fire-related topics. These might include summaries of yearly activities; fire prevention articles on smoke detectors, wood stoves and spring cleanup; historical articles on fires or the fire department; captioned pictures of training or apparatus; or biographies of specific fire fighters.
Creativity and imagination are essential to a successful media plan. News releases should be submitted as finished products or completed news stories that answer in simple, declarative sentences the questions of what, who, when, where and why. A polished news release makes the newspaper’s job easier and makes editing less likely. In a more general sense, good media public relations relies on the development of a constant and positive liaison with newspaper staffs. The public information officer and the chief should be as accessible and honest with news reporters as possible.
Handling negative news
In dealing with the media, there is also the problem of how to handle negative newspaper coverage or editorial criticism. If the criticism is valid, it may be necessary to just take your lumps. Often, even if the charges are inaccurate or exaggerated, it may be a wise policy to ignore it. The public has a relatively short memory and many things are better just left alone. If a reply is justified, it should be reasoned and well organized. Above all, fire departments should use discretion and tact in dealing with negative publicity. Indirect and informal persuasion may work much better than a direct confrontation.
There are a wide variety of other seasonal and special event projects that can be used to develop community awareness and good public relations. Some of the more successful are parades, open houses and displays. Demonstrations of fire fighting and rescue techniques can attract people and reinforce a professional image. However, if something goes wrong they can also be embarrassing.
One of the best ways to improve community contact is through involvement in community projects. The cosponsoring of events with social, religious and business organizations in the fire district can contribute to a positive image. In one such local event, a dinner jointly run by our fire company and a local restaurant, the fire company gained excellent publicity and $1200 in one evening for a new aerial ladder truck. The restaurant gained advertising (which was handled by the fire company) and new customers.
Finally, an important part of public relations is being grateful and giving proper recognition to those people and organizations in the community who support fire department operations. This is particularly true of businesses allowing volunteer fire fighters to respond to alarms while working or who contribute services to the fire department. Plaques, letters of commendation, to the annual banquet or newspaper articles acknowledging such special help are some of the ways the fire department can say thanks.
Vincent McNally is also coordinator of the public administration program at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.