REALITY CHECK By Scott Cook
On March 6, 2011, six adults perished in a mobile home fire in my hometown. You may have read about it here on FirefighterNation.com.
This article is not about the fire, though, or the operations of the fire departments working the fireground. It’s about how the news was communicated to the public, and what you need to do to effectively communicate your department’s message following various events.
We’re a small town—approximately 6,500 in the city of Granbury, Texas, and another 40,000 or so spread out in the county. Nationally newsworthy events generally don’t happen in small towns.
But sometimes they do.
In this case, Hood County Fire Marshal Brian Fine did an excellent job giving the media even more than what they asked for without compromising an investigation—or looking like some crazy farmer, claiming he was abducted by a UFO.
On the scene, the media will talk to anybody with even the minutest knowledge of an event: neighbors, passersby, firefighters in rehab, anyone. And the way that message comes across can make or break the public’s perception of your department and its capabilities.
We’ve all watched news stories about fires and the subsequent interviews with responding personnel. The people interviewed are speaking for the departments, and these folks range from a Jethro Bodiene-type to a polished politician with a silver tongue. Personally, I think the ideal public information officer (PIO) exists somewhere between these two. It’s someone who can relate the technical details on a level that John Q. Public can understand.
The PIO is the public voice for your department. In most departments, it’s the chief. But is that person the best choice? Not when I was the chief. Although I was generally the one tasked with it, I knew there were people who could do a better job. But alas, the local paper wants to talk to the chief.
Some key points to consider when putting someone in front of the cameras: You do not want the media talking to a member of your department while they’re wearing a ratty department T-shirt and a trucker hat. Big or small, that’s not the image you want to put out there. Bottom line: They should take a few minutes to square themselves away before going on camera for an interview, or having their mug put in the Sunday paper.
What if the job falls to you? If you’re not comfortable with public speaking, take a course and start speaking publicly. Or get someone else to do it. Ultimately, make sure that the person who’s selected to be the face and voice of your department is able to present you in the best possible way. Put the word out in town; find someone who can do it for you. They don’t even have to be a firefighter. You can teach them the stuff they need to know so that that they are ready to talk.
In short, whether you’re part of a career or volunteer department, the public image of your department is crucial for funding and community support. Take the PIO position seriously, and make sure you have identified the right person to do the job. You won’t know how important this is until you’re faced with a difficult incident.
Scott Cook is the former chief of the Granbury (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department and a fire service instructor. He’s also a member of FireRescue’s editorial board.
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