Step 1 in social media use
By Rob Reardon
On an average day at the firehouse, people would ring the doorbell in need of assistance. When we answered the door, many times people would say, “Sorry, did I wake you?” Why did so many people think during the day that their firefighters were sleeping? If you think back to all the children’s books about firefighters, many would show them in bed sleeping during the day. More importantly is the fact that people just don’t know what we do.
For years, we relied on others to tell our story and what we were doing, but that has all changed with social media. Social media is a tool that allows you to tell your taxpayers about your brand. Your brand is your department. It’s important that you know what your brand is and be consistent when selling it before you start on social media.
The purpose of your social media account is to use it as a platform that promotes what your department is doing daily. If you don’t tell people what you are doing, they won’t know. We often assume that people know what we are doing, but truthfully many people think all we do is fight fires.
So, when it’s time for you to post your first social media message, typically it will be one of two types—it can be an emergent message from an incident including weather-related warnings or it can be an informational/educational posting. Both posts are important for what we do as fire departments. When you are posting information from an incident, it is important to think of what the purpose of the post is. When we are at a major accident on the highway, our goal at the Duxbury (MA) Fire Department (DXFD) is to alert commuters of the accident while showing our followers that the DXFD is out working. The goal is not to sensationalize the incident with photos but to just get a picture with a DXFD truck in the foreground and either the traffic or the accident scene off in the distance.
An informational/educational post is your opportunity to show off the many things firefighters do that our customers do not know about. Many of the things you can post you might get made fun of by your neighboring fire departments. Just remember, you are doing this for your customers. A great example of this was when I posted a few years ago about an elevator rescue that DXFD did. Right after I posted it, I regretted putting out something as trivial as an elevator rescue. The next day, while we were grabbing lunch at a sandwich shop, a customer came up to me and said she had no idea that we did elevator rescues. She went on to say she was showing the post to all her friends while she was at her child’s sports practice. This post about an elevator rescue was shared by a customer to many other customers. This is a perfect example of a very simple operation that many of us do that our customers are not aware of.
Before you start putting your brand out there, you need to decide what platforms you will be using. My department uses four major social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. For a long time, I only used one platform, but with the help of an informal survey, I quickly found out that I was missing a lot of my customers. In my experience, each platform has a unique customer base:
Twitter is monitored regularly by news outlets that use this to gather news and use the photos that are posted directly on their platforms. This has replaced the press release for my department. All media agencies take the info I tweet and use it. This makes for much faster turnaround times for news agencies and gets it to all of them at the same time.
Facebook connects with more of the community. In our town, this is where we get a lot of interaction with the residents, and we receive a lot of praise and amazing feedback about the work our firefighters are doing.
Instagram is the way that we are connecting with the younger generation. It is a quick way to send a photo out with some basic information. The DXFD doesn’t see as much feedback on this platform as we do with Facebook.
YouTube is the outlet where we publish all our videos. This is also one of the most popular search engines, especially with the younger generation.
When I post to social media for the DXFD, I try to send the message on all three platforms at the same time with very similar content, depending on character allowances.
Before you hit the send button on a social media post, ask yourself if your customers will want this information. Are you retweeting posts from other big fire departments and what other town departments are doing? People are following YOU, and you need to respect the reason they follow you.
When I post, it is always about what my department has done. I try not to post information about what other agencies are doing or have done. If you follow my department, you will see my brand–Duxbury Fire (DXFD)–in almost all my posts. You don’t have to guess when you look at the photo where it is (Duxbury) or who responded (the DXFD). You will find it hard to ever see any responders or official vehicles in my scene photos that aren’t DXFD. I am promoting our brand. Promote your brand for your followers.
I speak/post in a language that my followers can understand. If you are posting that Engine 1 and Ladder 2 are making up after a house fire, the average person might think they had a fight. Try to look at it the way your audience might and talk in “civilian” terms.
Try to make your content engaging, and let your customers help spread your content. The DXFD is a small department south of Boston. Our social media accounts combined have more than 10,000 followers total. Some of our posts have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people because of major accounts sharing our messages. It is not uncommon to see a month of our posts reaching more than a million people by looking at analytical data.
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. Don’t miss your opportunity!
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 a CFO graduate. He is PIO for the ROCCC, the Plymouth County Technical Rescue Team, and the Southeastern Mass Technical Rescue Team. Prior to working at the DXFD, he worked for 10 years in the media for television stations and major newspapers as an award-winning photographer. His photographs have been used in many national magazines, newspapers, books, calendars, trade publications, and worldwide on TV news. Follow him on twitter @reardonphotos or on Instagram @robreardonphotos.