IAFC: Positive Public Perception is Everyone's Job

The success of fire and rescue departments depends on positive public perception.

But, just how do public safety officials market themselves and their valuable services?

The IAFC’s image task force not only studied image issues but has come out with a document this week offering suggestions on how to address them.

“Pointing fingers and playing the blame game is part of the ongoing challenges with our image. The difficult truth of the matter is that the fire and emergency service shares a good portion of the responsibility of the current environment, and only through accountability for our own actions and taking ownership of the issue can it be fixed,” according to the task force’s report Taking Responsibility for a Positive Public Perception.”

"The positive image of the fire service is something we can't take for granted anymore," IAFC Hank Clemmensen said in a prepared statement. "The truth is, the only ones who can ensure we continue to enjoy a positive public perception is us."

The authors, who included fire service officials, marketing folks and PIOs, said while they believe the public still respects the dedication of public safety providers, they warn that all services are being closely monitored.

“The increasing public scrutiny of our budgets, operations and behavior has led to a growing number of negative perceptions that is slowly tarnishing our image. The good news is we have the ability to turn the tide before it’s too late. If we are to be successful in maintaining a positive public image—which enables us to secure the public’s trust—we must reflect honestly, talk openly, work collaboratively, act professionally and take responsibility.”

They encourage officials to have the correct facts and tread lightly when they discuss budgets. The worst thing that can happen is to come across as a bully.

It’s important, they said, that firefighters and rescue personnel empathize with residents in their communities who may be unemployed, fearing layoffs and foreclosures.

“With neither compassion nor education about the fire and emergency service system, it’s easy for community members to feel bullied, angry and perhaps even betrayed. Suddenly, those who were meant to stand between them and danger can be perceived as presenting a danger to their financial—or even physical—wellbeing.”

In addition to having the facts and figures, the task force stressed the importance for members to maintain a professional demeanor – especially in these tough economic times.

“The reality is, however, that in many communities, the money is simply not available, and when first responders react with ignorance and arrogance—be it in a community meeting or by belittling people in online posts to media stories—they not only lose immediate public support, but also do significant damage to the long-term reputation of the service.”

The group encourages officers to use the resources in the document, and adapt them.

Among the key marketing philosophies outlined by the task force are:

  • Predictable – Establishing and balancing expectations of what services and programs the fire department provides in our all hazards environment based on assessing community risks.
  • Visible – Being engaged in meaningful public interactions with neighborhood and community groups, business and civic organizations, festivals and other community events to take advantage of every opportunity to inform, educate and build relationships within the community.
  • Accessible – When citizens or business leaders need to get to the fire chief to have their needs met, the opportunity is available, and it doesn't take multiple emails or phone calls to make it happen.
  • Approachable – Demonstrating the personality and character (at all times) so stakeholders feel personally connected to the fire chief even if they have only seen them from a distance or on television. When approachability really works, citizens feel a true sense of ownership of their fire department and their fire chief.
  • Accountable – Establishing a reputation in the community that all questions—even scrutiny—are welcomed. It provides an opportunity for the fire chief to justify credible actions with data, science and stories, but also to take responsibility when operations aren't carried out to our standards and their expectations.

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