Understanding Public Perception

My thoughts this week are to shed light on the aspects of public perception of the fire service and my hope is that you can take some of this information and use it within your own department.

Your community’s perception, or civilian perception of the fire service in general is based upon a lot of things. The civilian perspective and view of us is one of those external factors that affects us in many ways. The most obvious way is the public funding and support of our department and it’s mission. If the public is less than confident in your department or of firefighters in general, then funding and our future can look a lot different.

I think many of us in the fire service would agree that the image of the fire service was high after the events of September 11, 2001. It is my humble opinion that we as a fire service have now probably slipped to a level that we were previous or actually in some cases below that.

My point this week is that if we look at how our perception is formed we might be able to impact this in a positive way.

We are all very familiar with the fire triangle. I am now proposing a discussion on the public relations triangle. This triangle like all others gathers much strength when all the pieces are together but sever any one of the legs and the triangle or image crumbles.

The public Relations triangle is made up of the Department Head (Chief), the individual members, and the union or volunteer organization. The actions of any one of these three will have a positive or negative effect on your department and it;s public perception. Let’s take a look at how this works.

The Chief: If the chief is presenting some negative image at meetings at town hall, or within the community somehow, then the folks that have contacted him will have a negative image of the community. If they perceive the chief as distant or aloof then the department could also be cast in that light. Now a fire chief has a fine line to walk, because as a natural course of the performance of their duties they can negatively impact some folks. Take for example a fire chief that attempts to enforce the fire code and inspection procedures, well it is very likely that some business owners may not like him so much and may have adverse thoughts toward the department. I think that this is very different from a fire chief who plays favorites with some business people and some follow the code and others don’t. The perceptions are both negative, but one is certainly for a proper and correct reason of enforcing the fire code properly. I ask you to think of local or national things where the fire chief may have negatively impacted their department. Has the chief allowed themselves to be non functional and have they become the weak leg of the triangle?

The individual members: If one of your members has a negative experience either personal or professional it will impact the strength of this triangle. The person on the street as a civilian will say, “Did you see what the firefighter did?” The local newspaper will say ” Local Firefighter xyz….Blah Blah” but in any case it will still say firefighter. In one recent case I have seen in the northeast it was actually “Former fighter charged with….” so this leg of the triangle of members might even extend to former or retired members in some cases. If you have large or overweight firefighters, what public perception does that give as it relates to our “readiness”. If you have firefighters that may not be there on the department for the right reasons, they may injure your perception by their overt actions or statements in the public.

The Union Local or department organization: When the president of the volunteer organization or the local union president takes actions, those actions become reflective of the entire department. These actions could be and are usually of a public nature to attempt to speak and advocate for the department or the interests of all of the members. It is important to note that most organizations are to look out for the well being of the members, it is very rare that they actually speak for ALL of the members. This results in public statements that might be contrary to the thoughts of individual members, and in may cases adverse to the position of the fire chief. In addition while advocating for their membership, they may be at odds with the public, or the economic realities of the community or area.

What can we do about the public relations triangle? Here are some thoughts. I hate to raise problems without some possible solutions.

First is to be aware that your organization’s image has three distinct parts and pieces to it and that any of them are fragile and interdependent so be vigilant of all three to protect your image.

Second if you are a member of an organization or department, remember the old adage, of ” Don’t embarrass your boss.” Your actions on and off duty are scrutinized by the public and the public might not always be fair. It is what it is. Know it and understand it.

If you are a chief and / or a department administrator remember that your individual actions and issues that arise at town hall have an impact on your department. Sometimes as administrators we do not realize that our advocacy for our department can backfire. Life just ain’t fair and sometimes politicians will make a “department pay” for the actions of the boss.

If you are the president of the local or the president of the association in a volunteer setting realize that you are not the chief, and the “Us and them” trap is an easy one to fall into. Your actions, statements, and comments will be perceived as coming from the department in general. While your interest is the best for all members, just understand that not every member of your organization will always agree 100% of the time. You may not be speaking for all.

Finally communication is the key to all of the public perception. The member have to know where the boss is going, and the organization or the union has to also be in agreement on the overall department mission. When everyone knows where the bus is headed, it makes the trip go a lot smoother.

Work with all three legs of the public relations triangle to build a strong and unbreakable department image.

Pete Lamb
Copyright 2013