Leadership, Operations

Social Media: The Bad Stuff

Know the rules before you post

By Rob Reardon

Social media can be very bad for our organizations.  Fires, car accidents, and medical runs can also be bad.  Your organization trains on a regular basis for emergencies, but have you trained your firefighters on social media?   Did you go to an academy before you started your job?  We train as organizations on report writing, tactics and strategies, and liability, but have you ever thought to train on the device your firefighters can’t put down? 

Whether your team is engaging in social media on or off the job, there can be serious implications.  Your firefighters need to know the ground rules and be educated in how so many in the public sector have lost their jobs because of poor judgment when using social media.  Most people hang their hat on the First Amendment and free speech when they post rants on social media.  They back the claims up that they are on their personal social media accounts.  Many times, employees don’t realize that their personal account is not so personal.  When you post pictures and information about your workplace on your personal account, it is no longer personal.  People will write in their social media bio, “My opinion does not reflect that of my employer.”  Again, this means very little when you are posting information about where you work and your profile picture has you in a fire helmet.  Those in the public sector must realize that the First Amendment does not protect employees’ speech when the employer or organization’s interest in providing efficient and effective service is disrupted.  In simple terms, this means that the organization’s mission is more important than the YOUR free speech and there is case law to back this up.

As a PIO, you will need to be able to handle not only social media but also the interviews from TV, radio, and newspapers. (Photo by Tyler Reardon)

If you are in charge of social media for your organization, make sure you are taking classes and learning before you start posting.  As the public information officer (PIO) for your department, you are speaking on behalf of your department and jurisdiction.  This is a tremendous responsibility that should not be taken lightly.  This is not the same as posting pictures of your dinner on your personal account and telling people how great your meal was.  As the official voice of your department, people look to you for answers and as a voice of reason.  They are looking to you to have their best interests in mind. 

When you post on social media, you must thoroughly review your photos and text to look for anything that is not right.  You need to make sure every photo is depicting safe operations being conducted by your crews.  Patient and homeowner privacy must be adhered to.  Common decency is of the utmost of importance.  You should never be posting staged group photos of firefighters smiling during emergencies. 

A photo of the first-due crew after a fire is good for camaraderie. This same photo taken when a fire is active is a public relations nightmare. (Photo by author)

Check with your department’s legal counsel and human resources department to discuss the use of social media.  Your department needs to have a comprehensive social media policy and procedure that clearly says what can and cannot be done.  As the person who is doing all the posting, you want something you can fall back on when questioned about your social media postings.

Cross-promoting your social media platforms can be effective in building your audience. This allows you to get your message out to more of your customers. (Graphic by Nick Stehn)

Have you figured out what the purpose of your organization’s social media account is?  Have you truly thought how to get the message out to your audience in the most appropriate way?  We all make mistakes, but what you do when you make that mistake will determine your credibility within your community.  You will receive praise and criticism, as people’s perception of what you are doing can be drastically different.  It is essential that you convey a consistent message about your organization.  The messages you are sending are the way many are judging you and your organization. 

You need to take the role of the person who can find fault in every post that you put out there.  You need to ask yourself before hitting the send button, how can this hurt my organization?  What in this photo or language will offend people?  You need to be thinking more about the implications on every post before getting wrapped up in the good of the post.  Just like many things, there is a bad side to social media.  With the right team and training, the good of social media for your organization will outweigh the bad.

Rob Reardon has been in the fire service for more than 20 years and is a captain in the Duxbury (MA) Fire Department (DXFD), where he has worked for the past 18 years.  He is an EFO and CFO graduate.  He is the public information officer for the department, 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, and worldwide on TV news.  You can follow him on Twitter @reardonphotos, on Instagram @robreardonphotos, or at www.robreardon.com