Pub Ed should be department-led
By Tanya Bettridge
The ever-emerging trend for municipalities across the country is to establish or expand corporate communications, a.k.a. “Corp Com.” For larger municipalities, it may be an entire department led by a director and consisting of several communications staff. For medium and small municipalities, it’s more likely one or two people dedicated to internal and external messaging, social media and other communications tasks.
By Tanya Bettridge
Well, that’s a good thing, right? For fire departments and especially public education, a.k.a. “Pub Ed,” that depends on the following factors:
- Whether the fire department controls and maintains its own traditional/social media channels.
- If Corp Com understands and respects how safety messaging differs from corporate messaging.
- Corp Com’s level of control/authority over fire department external communications.
In talking with public educators across North America, fire departments are starting to focus on the adult audience, (the age group actually responsible for fire safety) and use messaging that is funny, hard-hitting, shocking or emotionally-compelling. Basically, what the private sector does in commercials and ads to compel people to buy their products or services. Or, departments want to be able to share messages related to recent incidents to increase awareness in an immediately impactful way. Unfortunately, they have run into roadblocks in the form of Corp Com rejection/control.
Some chiefs might think, “So what? Less work for us, right?”
If I was to compare this issue to an example in the realm of suppression, it might look like this:
- The finance department controls which apparatus are sent to every incident.
- In order for that decision to be made, dispatch must provide incident info to the finance department well in advance to give finance staff time to review the request.
- The finance department will then decide, from a financial standpoint, what apparatus makes the most sense.
If you read that and think — “That’s absurd!” —you’re right, it is. Unless staff in the finance department are fully trained in fire response, they will lack the knowledge necessary to determine which apparatus should respond to what type of incident, and in what order. Needing the request in advance cripples the department’s ability to respond in the most timely and effective fashion, which is a necessity for emergency response. Finally, finance staff would be making decisions based on cost, rather than what apparatus are needed to best address the emergency.
Having Corp Com control fire and life safety messaging is a bit like having the finance department control our apparatus response. The decisions will be based on a different purpose, different knowledge base and longer timeline than based on what is best to address the situation quickly/effectively and affect change.
Corporate communication is integral to municipalities these days, as its purpose is to engage and inform. That is not the purpose of modern fire public education; rather, it is to compel a change in behaviour. This requires a different, edgy, often adult-targeted and much timelier approach; one that often crosses the line of what Corp Com would approve.
This leads us to what I have dubbed “The Fight” and the three options fire departments have:
- Fight tooth and nail to gain or regain control over fire department external communications, including and especially social media.
- Meet with Corp Com and instill a high level of understanding about the purpose of public education messaging, how it differs from theirs and see if an agreement can be worked out. This may require training and development of Corp Com and fire department staff.
- Surrender, knowing that your messaging may be watered down, sterilized or downright rejected, leaving you with the traditional, super-appropriate-for-all-ages type of messaging that today’s communities essentially ignore.
Make no mistake, this is not an attack on Corp Com; they are absolutely vital to municipal transparency and citizen engagement. Their messaging is attractive, informative and appropriate for all ages. It is reflective of the image the municipality desires to maintain. I highly respect their level of professionalism, commitment and wholeheartedly acknowledge that they do their job well.
But they are not in a position to do fire and life safety education’s job well. We cannot wait for tragedy to prompt someone to maintain their smoke and CO alarms. We have to create and distribute compelling messaging before these tragedies occur.
■ How to build your case
For many fire departments, gaining or regaining control over external communication is not achieved via request. You may find that you have to build a case to support your position in the matter. Fundamentally, your case is quite similar to how you’d argue for control over your apparatus:
- The purpose of fire and emergency services are first and foremost to save lives and protect the community. Public education is a big part of that purpose.
- The fire department will ensure that those creating and distributing fire and life safety messaging will be fully trained and knowledgeable in that area.
- The fire chief is ultimately responsible for the actions of the fire department, whether staff is operating a fire truck or Twitter account.
- The image and reputation of the fire department is a very positive one and we can use our channels to also help promote the municipality.
- Citizens do not act on information alone; they will not test their smoke alarm just because the municipality told them to. They can be compelled to do it, though, and our staff can achieve that.
In the film The American President, A.J. MacInerney said to his president, “Oh, you only fight the fights you can win? You fight the fights that need fighting!”
According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 Canadian Social Media Use, 64 per cent have a social media network profile, more than 50 per cent are registered to more than one social media platform and over 69 per cent actively engage through watching, sharing or uploading videos online. For most fire departments, that means the vast majority of their residents are online and active on social media.
I bet A.J. would tell emergency services that control over fire and life safety messaging is worth fighting for… too many lives depend on it.
Tanya Bettridge is an administrative assistant and public educator for the Perth East and West Perth fire departments in Ontario. Email Tanya at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her @PEFDPubEd