Marketing 101

How to make social media work for your department
October 31, 2010
Written by Sarah McGoldrick
Lots of workplaces discourage employees from using Facebook when they’re on the job. Many Canadian fire departments, on the other hand, have embraced social media as an effective and efficient tool to communicate with residents, raise money, launch recruitment drives and spread information about local emergencies.

What’s more, tech-savvy generation Xers and generation Yers who grew up with computers and are intimately familiar with Facebook are becoming the social media experts within their departments, helping officers and chiefs learn the ropes of YouTube,  Twitter or LinkedIn.

If your department is considering using social media but isn’t sure where to start, here are some success stories and some advice for making sure your venture into social media achieves your goals without any of the typical social media blunders.

The Calgary Fire Department created a Facebook page for recruitment (search Calgary Fire Department – Recruitment) that explains how to prepare for interviews. The fire departments in Nova Scotia’s Yarmouth County (search Yarmouth County Fire Departments) use Facebook to provide information about upcoming meetings, share photos and connect with residents. Some fire departments even post procedure manuals and training videos on social media sites.

The Baie Verte Fire Deptartment in Newfoundland created a Facebook page after its hall was destroyed by a fire in February (search Support The Baie Verte Volunteer Fire Department). The community of about 1,200 people has rallied around the department; residents used the page to make online donations through PayPal, follow the campaign’s success and share information about future fundraising efforts such as community breakfasts and a recycling blitz.

A fire department, a mutual aid group or a firefighters’ association can set up a Facebook page or group for its members and/or people in the community to join. The group administrator (usually a member of the department or association) can send messages about events or incidents to everyone who has signed up to be a member of that Facebook group.

Why social media?
More than 150 million people use Facebook to communicate. In fact, its search tool is now more popular than Google. The popular YouTube video Social Media Revolution (search for Social Media Revolution in the YouTube search bar) says more than 30 per cent of the world’s population is under 30 years old, that Facebook tops Google for weekly traffic in the U.S. and that social media has overtaken pornography as the No. 1 activity on the web. The video also claims that 80 per cent of companies use social media for recruitment, that generations X and Y consider e-mail passé, that 60 million status updates happen on Facebook daily and that we will no longer search for products and services, they will find us via social media.

Accounts on most social media sites are free to set up and operate. They are also an effective way to communicate because they are so easily accessible through computers and smartphones. This ability to do things remotely can save departments time and money.
 
One of the biggest uses of social media for fire department is community outreach – helping the public better understand fire safety and the role of the fire department.

This year, Forest Service British Columbia (FSBC) set up a Facebook page to keep residents up to date on the status of forest fires in its area. Contact information and links to the Ministry of Forests and Range were provided for residents to help in preventing and reporting fires. Road closure information, videos and campfire information was also provided. The service was monitored by FSBC and a clear moderation policy was outlined, preventing the posting of abusive or indecent material.

Community support
In Newfoundland, the Burlington Volunteer Fire Department (search Burlington Volunteer Fire Department) successfully used social media to raise money. Two years ago the department was in desperate need of a new equipment carrier. The $104,000-vehicle is critical to ensuring the safety of Burlington’s 400 residents, and the neighbouring community of Smith’s Harbour, which the department also serves.

These communities are nestled along the northeast shore of Newfoundland, beside the coves of the Atlantic Ocean. Firefighting presents many unique challenges due to the rocky and rugged nature of the landscape. Getting the equipment where it needs to be safely is paramount to effectively serving the community.

Just as important was community support to raise funds to buy the truck. To make sure everyone in the community understood the need and was able to communicate support, the fire department quickly set to work implementing its Facebook fundraising campaign.

“Everyone is on Facebook for everything,” says Burlington Deputy Chief Nelson Matthews, who was among the campaign co-ordinators. He notes that with little government assistance, it was necessary for the department to find new ways to communicate with the community and raise much-needed funds. “There really isn’t any outside assistance for us. The fire department has to raise its own money,” says Matthews.

Matthews says the Facebook page was instrumental in raising awareness about the need of the department and the response was excellent. The department used the Facebook page to inform the community about fundraising events and the campaign progress.

In just a few months, the community had successfully raised the money it needed to buy the new truck. When the campaign was over, residents continued to use
the page to share their congratulations and offer the fire department continued support.

“Congrats on the new truck!! May she never leave the garage!!!! And lets hope it sees less work than the old one!” writes a resident on the department’s Facebook wall.

With the success of the fundraising campaign, the department then effectively used Facebook to engage the community in education programs and as a place where the community could celebrate the department’s 25th anniversary.

SOPs
Social media is easy to use, but experts say departments and associations should take some precautions.

Consultants suggest that organizations such as fire departments create social media plans to ensure proper use of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn. These plans may include information about appropriate content, user and administrative rights and office protocol. These guidelines can ensure the quality and relevance of information.
It is important to be inclusive when creating policies and to work with your department to create an open dialogue and ensure everyone understands the rules. This will create an environment in which members are more apt to participate.

Martha Jack, head consultant at eConverse Social Media Consulting in Fergus, Ont., says municipalities must become more adaptable to social media and its impact on communication.

“I think municipalities are really missing the boat with social media, it’s a great opportunity to listen to what the public has to say and build relationships with them,” she says.

She adds there are many ways organizations can easily incorporate social media into their communication strategies to find out which tools and resources work best for each individual group.

“One of the best ways to try out social media is to do something internally, such as a group page for just your employees. This allows you to get a good handle of the type of content, the time commitment and potential issues that may come up, before you go public,” she says.

She says departments that are just starting out should create a strategic social media plan with clear goals and objectives, such as a timeline, resource implications, suggested platforms and a social media policy.

In an effort to ensure clear communication and content, Jack suggests that organizations identify a social media spokesperson. This controls where the information is being delivered and addresses feedback in a timely manner.

Identifying the most effective platform, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or YouTube, will help to reach your audience and address issues such as how your social media plan will work in a crisis or emergency situation.

Jack says there are a few simple steps departments should take to understand how to apply social media to their broader communication strategy.

  • Decide what constitutes personal information within social media. Is your organization sharing only information or is it also sharing photos and video? Can members of the social media group also post their personal information?
  • Establish how this information can be used and who has access to it. Develop privacy settings and make sure your participants know how to use them.
  • Use social networking platforms that are reputable and gain a good understanding of their privacy policies.

Jacks notes that fire departments may want to create their own social media policies to outline what information can be shared, including identifying details such as locations and dates.
 
The adaptability of social media to media platforms such as video and photos has allowed departments and associations to share important information with communities in a cost-effective way. This makes social media an ideal solution for departments with limited communication budgets and those looking for new ways to communicate with the public.

Sarah McGoldrick is a writer and public relations consultant based in Fergus, Ont.

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