Chief Eric Nickel
Have you harnessed the power of social media to brand your department? Eric Nickel, who recently became chief of the Palo Alto (Calif.) Fire Department, advises public-information officers (PIOs) to use social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook to educate the public, provide information to citizens about incidents, and communicate ways a department services their community.
FIRE CHIEF spoke with Nickels about specific ways PIOs can tap into social-networking sites and their ability to transmit important information to the masses.
Why should PIOs use social media?
We've all been on those large incidents where you feel like you are in a stadium, because there are hundreds of people standing on the side watching the structure fire, vehicle accident or the rescue. People have this human behavior where they want to know what is going on. It often brings people together who have never talked. Watch the crowd at these incidents, and those in the neighborhood are now talking to each other and engaging in the incident. People want to know and have a desire to know what's going on in their community, particularly when they hear a lot of sirens … . Social media is the next frontier and can deliver that information citizens want.
Why is social media a good medium to communicate to the community?
Social media is perfect venue for fire departments to get information out to the public who are demanding it. Now, with your smartphone you can take an image of the scene and upload it on Facebook or Twitter. Also, when you have 2,000 followers, you can post a public-service message using only a few sentences and a link to a more detailed Web page. The reach of social media to get a quick safety message out there on a regular basis is huge. It also is low-cost.
It also is a good public-relations piece. You are generating goodwill with the community by putting messaging out there. It gives the fire department a chance to control their message, including explaining who they are, the services offered, the individuals who serve and the department's values.
How can social media help fire departments reduce community risk?
The opportunity to reduce community risk outweighs any internal concerns of someone posting something that isn't appropriate. In fact, the opportunity is to use some of these tools by posting engaging content like pictures, safety messages, announcing events, open houses, certification classes and more. Specifically, a department knows what its unique community hazards are. For example, in our community we see a spike in home fires over the holidays primarily caused by cooking. So, we pepper our Facebook and social media with safety messages around safe cooking with an uptick over the holiday season. During that season, we will get a few kitchen calls. We will take a picture of the kitchen after the fire is out and post it on the social media sites as a reinforcement of that safety message.
How can social media be used to brand the fire department and secure its future?
Social media is one tool in the toolbox to brand. Use social media to support what the department does daily, including great service. It can be used to tell citizens that the fire department is protecting them and making life safer. Also use it to tell the community how well managed the department is, especially in today's economic times. We will put things in there about how we are saving the community money, such as passing a balanced budget or living within our means. All those things together build that excellence brand.