Tell Your Story or Someone Else Will!

The author at a press briefing.

Educate the public on the services we offer

By Rob Reardon

It’s no secret that we don’t have the fires we once had. This makes it even more important to tell your audience what you are doing on a regular basis. Whether you work in a small town or a large metropolitan city, you have to market what your fire department is doing. We are forced to justify our existence, and social media provides that golden opportunity. We used to rely heavily on mainstream media to be our vehicle to our audience, but social media is a total game changer when used correctly. 

Recently, a town near where I live had a house fire with numerous rescues. That night on the news and the following days, all the media coverage was about what that town’s police department had done. When I looked on social media, that town’s fire department had no social media account, but the police department did. The police department told the story of what its officers and department did at the fire. Without any official social media presence, the fire department lost a great opportunity to tell its story, but the police department was quoted on television and in online articles. The police department got the message out concerning everything it did at this incident. The media took the information from the fastest official source available, which was the police department. 

The framing of this photo with the car fire in the background and the engine in the foreground is intentional. This photo leaves no doubt that the DXFD was working at this fire. This shows the taxpayers that their firefighters are using that expensive engine they paid for. (Photos by author.)

This theory is no different than if that same incident plays out in your town and the media arrives to cover the story. If you keep the media back and ignore them, they are not going to leave. Their goal is to get an official interview from a representative of the fire department describing what you have done. If you don’t do an interview, they will still get the story by doing “man on the street” interviews. This type of interview is when they find anyone in the area who is willing to be interviewed. These people might know nothing of what happened and just want to be on television. When this happens, you are letting your story be told by someone else. This person interviewed can potentially speak on the perception of a long response time or how fast the police arrived. This is the reason it is crucial for you to tell your story with your own words. 

If you are busy, set up a time and a location with the media for a briefing where you can talk to them all at once. When you set up a time, try to stick to it, because they all have deadlines they are trying to meet. You can also work with the police to set up a media staging area that is close enough for them to get video of your department working at the incident. The media provides another avenue to get your message out there and can be a big help if you need information sent to a bigger audience.

Many incidents commanders will let out a grunt when the media shows up at one of their incidents. My experience from working in the media for more than 10 years allows me to see an opportunity when they show up at incidents at which my fire department is working. When you work with the media and help them to do their job, they will in turn help you to do your job. 

The author at a press briefing.

When a television station shows up at one of your incidents, think of the amount of money they are investing in a story about your department. I have always said it is like getting a free commercial promoting your department. If you take the time to work with them, the commercial will be much better than if you let them talk to people on the street about the incident. When you talk to the media, you will tell them your challenges and successes, which will shape their story and will then allow them to get more informed interviews to back up what you are saying. All these pieces allow them to put together what is called in the business a “package.” Using social media, you can post a time and location for a media briefing while you are still at the scene.

There is only so much money to go around in the city or town in which you work. Most of our fire departments are competing against other town departments for funds from the same bucket of money! You might have to compete against the police department, school department, DPW, water department, and more. All these departments have needs and are working to justify their needs as hard or harder than you are. By pushing out what you are doing in your own words, it makes it easier at budget time for the finance committee to support your requests and needs. 

There is a good chance that your town’s decision makers will follow your account and know daily what your department is doing. If decision makers don’t follow you, your taxpayers will.  We find that many of the comments from people in our service area are honestly astonished at and thankful for all their firefighters are doing for the community daily. They continually comment that they had no idea how busy we were. They also weren’t aware of all the types of calls and training that what we are constantly doing. 

A fatal motor vehicle accident that is photographed from a distance so as not to glamorize the accident. The DXFD pushes out information to the public to expect major delays and avoid the area on this road that sees more than 60,000 cars daily.

Tell your story in your own words because the average person has no idea what the firefighters are doing, and that is a problem. Many of the things we do in the course of a day the taxpayers have never imagined that we do. We must educate the public on the services we offer and how busy we are. A firefighter’s job has changed and continues to change, and social media is a platform and sounding board with which to educate. Social media allows you to put the simple but important things that your department is doing out there. These smaller social media posts are things the local newspaper wouldn’t be interested in covering but are informative to your customers. This is where a quick photo and a short but well-thought-out description will go a long way. 

Your firefighters are working hard every day with less and less. There are many ways to show this hard work to your customers using social media. Don’t miss the opportunity to tell your story! The use of social media is a chance to educate your customers and promote your department. People’s time is valuable and limited, and you want to make the most out of every post. Social media allows you to tell your story; if you don’t tell it, someone else will.

Rob Reardon is a captain and public information officer (PIO) with the Duxbury (MA) Fire Department (DXFD), where he has worked for the past 17 years. He is an EFO and CFO graduate. He is the PIO for the ROCCC, the Plymouth County Technical Rescue Team, and the Southeastern Mass Technical Rescue Team.  Prior to working at DXFD, he worked for ten years in the media for television stations and major newspapers as an award-winning photographer.  His photographs have been used on the covers of many national magazines, newspapers, books, calendars, trade publications as well as used worldwide on TV news.  You can follow him on twitter @reardonphotos or on Instagram @robreardonphotos