Volunteer Vision: May 2010
By Tom DeSorcy
It has often been said that the size and extent of any emergency is equal to the number of satellite news trucks in the parking lot the next day.
By Tom DeSorcy
It has often been said that the size and extent of any emergency is equal to the number of satellite news trucks in the parking lot the next day. That’s not always the case, but a scene like that can be pretty overwhelming. We all know the feeling and for most, it’s truly one of fear – fear that you will be put on trial in the court of public opinion, fear that nothing positive can come out of a media interview, and all “they” are interested in is finding someone to blame for something, or fear that you simply are not good at public speaking.
Is this what goes through your mind when the microphones and cameras arrive? Is dealing with the media the biggest concern you have beyond that of even the incident itself? Then maybe it’s time to take a different view and start to treat the media as part of your team and one of the most valuable tools that you have at your disposal.
You see, I used to be one of “them”. In fact, when I first started in the fire service as a volunteer I was a young broadcasting grad working on the air at CKGO Radio in Hope, B.C.
As an on-air announcer I was also responsible for covering local news. As you can imagine, that put me in a somewhat unique situation. First off, in the smaller communities at least, fires don’t happen every day and when a fire truck is rolling through town with lights and sirens on, everyone knows, or at least wants to know, what’s going on. I was considered a contact “on the inside” so to speak, but I, like most every volunteer firefighter in Canada, knew how to separate my real life from my responder life and always waited until after the call before filing a story and, to be honest, often from the fire hall itself. Besides, the sound of a truck’s back-up alarm in a radio report made for a great sound effect.
Perhaps it’s because I told the stories I reported from a fire perspective, but I knew the power that we, in the media, had and helped the fire department gain access to it. Think of it like this: in today’s fire service we refer to the people we serve as customers. If that’s the case then consider us in the business of fire prevention and public safety. Can you imagine any other business that could simply call up the local newspaper, provide a photo backdrop and get countless free advertising to sell a product? This is unheard of in the business world but accessible in ours, yet the majority of us don’t take advantage of it. Most prefer to sit back and wait for an event and when the time comes, are ill prepared for what they face. Maybe it’s time to stop reacting and start calling on the media before they call on you.
If you haven’t already, take the time to build and maintain contacts outside of any incident or emergency with your local media. Then, when they do arrive, treat the experience not as a trial but as an opportunity as part of the overall incident response. Talk when you’re ready to talk and, if cameras are involved, where you want to talk. That means pick your background and, during interviews, consider whether there is something to be learned by what has just occurred or something extraordinary your department has done, and work that into your interview. Put your spin on the event beyond the usual who, what, where and when. Again, all of this is so much easier when you have an existing relationship; however, – particularly in smaller communities – that relationship is often forgotten if and when the big event occurs (or when the satellite trucks roll into town). Imagine how you would feel if you developed a rapport with someone only to be ignored just because it’s a big event. You’ve taken all this time to build up trust. Always try to remember the little guy.
At the end of the day, your 15 minutes of fame will be just that and another day will bring another story, probably bigger than yours. Realize that no amount of media training or seminars can teach you to be comfortable talking publicly if it’s simply something you’re not used to. In any case, I will leave you with one piece of advice that all broadcasters learn in their careers: treat every microphone as live and every camera as if it were turned on. Believe me, that rule has saved many of us on more than one occasion.
Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Originally a radio broadcaster, Tom’s voice could be heard in the early 1990s across Canada as one of the hosts of Country Coast to Coast. DeSorcy is married with two children, aged 28 and 20, and enjoys curling and golf. He is also active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C., and chairs the communications and conference committees. Contact him at TDeSorcy@hope.ca