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Flashpoint: August 2009

A major Canadian newspaper recently published an article that was sharply critical of the operations of a major metropolitan fire service. It can be construed from the article that a member of that service was feeding information to the reporter, without authorization and for reasons known only to the member.

July 27, 2009
By Peter Sells

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A major Canadian newspaper recently published an article that was sharply critical of the operations of a major metropolitan fire service. It can be construed from the article that a member of that service was feeding information to the reporter, without authorization and for reasons known only to the member. It can also be construed that the reporter had a knowledge of the fire service that was, at best, rudimentary. References to firefighters wearing oxygen tanks and other technical inaccuracies were present throughout. So, I thought this month we would take a refresher course on media relations.

There are some basic rules about media relations that most of us have heard but every once in a while bear repeating.

  1. The microphone is always on. Simply put, if you say something dumb you can be sure that it will end up in the final cut. Reporters can’t actually make anything up out of the blue but they are experts at editing your words and placing them in whatever context suits their purpose. Exercise as much discipline as you can in choosing your words carefully and with intent. Remember that you are not in court – there is no judge or attorney present who will insist that you answer every question as asked. Remember that all of this goes for print media as well.
  2. The reporter is there to help you get your message out. Every occasion of contact with the media is an opportunity to raise the profile of your fire service, get some piece of fire safety information out or influence public opinion. When the message is critical to public safety, for example during a community wide crisis, the reporter’s task is the same as yours – to get the most accurate and current information out so that people know what to do. When the stakes are not as high, media contact time can still be used to your advantage. I worked for a fire chief and a mayor who were absolute magicians at this. OK, one was a magician and one was a clown who could grab and make use of public face time like no-o-o-body else! If there is a national story about smoke detectors, get a media release out and have your messages ready. If there was a hotel fire on the other side of the world, get on the local TV station showing people how to use duct tape and towels to shelter in place if necessary. (How many of you put a roll of duct tape in your suitcase, by the way?)
  3. The reporter is NOT there to help you get your message out. Sometimes, the reporter’s interests and yours are not totally aligned. Watch out for this (see the microphone is always on, above). One function of the media is to hold public institutions accountable. If your organization can be shown to be inefficient, disorganized or substandard there is a potential news story. Notice I said can be shown to be rather than is. Here is the difference – if you are not performing up to public expectations then there is a genuine concern and a legitimate story. If, however, reporters take it upon themselves to selectively quote questionable sources without bothering to do proper research then your organization can be subjected to unfounded criticism. You may wonder why a reporter would act this way. Well, just like anybody else, reporters want to advance themselves. If they are writing for a small town paper, they would like to be noticed and move to a larger market. If they are in print, maybe they would like to be on TV. And, if the way to get there is by climbing all over you and your fire service, then so be it.  So, how can we protect ourselves against this blind ambition? Establish a media policy for your organization. Reporters will continue to dig for information and will take anything said by anyone as a legitimate quote, so make sure everyone knows who is authorized to speak for your fire service. If it is not you, then shut up. Your only task is to direct the reporter to the chief’s office or to the public information officer if your organization is large enough to have one. Expressing your personal opinion or airing dirty laundry will not do anyone any good. Not the chief, not the senior staff, not your co-workers and most certainly not you.

Remember, when one of us is made to look bad, all of us look bad, however briefly. We have a sterling image with the public that has been maintained since the 19th century. It takes more than one malcontent with an axe to grind and one ambitious reporter to tarnish that image.


District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch.

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