Communication professionals in public services are basically spin doctors, employed primarily to manage their organisation’s reputation – right? Wrong.
In 2005 the Local Government Association and LGcomms published the Reputation guide, a checklist of things Councils could do to improve their reputation. The New Reputation guide followed in 2010. They clearly articulated a purpose for communicators in local government – to improve public satisfaction with Council services. I was never convinced that approach entirely fitted the Fire Service. In an era of austerity, I know it doesn’t. I don’t believe that public service communicators can justify their role solely on the grounds of reputation. We know that the public would rather see their money go on nurses, teachers and firefighters.
So what is a communicator’s role in the Fire Service? Could any of us articulate it in one sentence? Recently in the fire trade press, a private contractor seemed to suggest that communications functions could be outsourced to a call centre-type outfit, answering journalists’ calls. Suggestions like that fundamentally misunderstand what I believe our clear role in the Fire Service is.
It is beyond reputation. Communicators in today’s public services must show how they directly contribute to achieving overall organisational aims, whether by making services better, reducing demand, or changing public behaviour. In today’s Fire Service, that means proving our direct impact on reducing emergency incidents, improving prevention and protection, or helping to achieve change.
In South Yorkshire, I’d say 75-80% of our team’s role is community fire safety. Most of the rest is change management, or internal communication. At the same time, we maximise our reputation wherever possible, systematically measuring and evaluating our effectiveness along the way; but I can’t justify a penny of my Authority’s spending on communication for reputation alone. Firefighters drive a fire service’s reputation. Our role must be about community safety.
My South Yorkshire colleague, Alex Mills, has worked closely with our Community Fire Safety team to develop a range of successful and innovative campaigns which are proven to reduce emergency incidents, and have paid for themselves many times over in savings to society. We’ve published our ‘greatest hits’, which outlines some of this work. It’s called “Community Safety In Numbers”, because we’ve rigorously evaluated the impact of our work.
The Fire Service and the public have an inherent goodwill towards “traditional” community safety, such as school visits, youth engagement courses, and fitting smoke alarms – going out and doing stuff. Millions of pounds are spent on these activities every year nationwide, and some of them are clearly working in reducing emergency incidents. But which ones work? Which are the millions well spent, and which don't actually reduce risk? Whether these initiatives are properly evaluated or not, they’re “Community Safety” and people have an instinctive emotional support for them.
Far from the millions spent on “traditional” community safety, I agonise over spending £5,000 on a safety campaign that I know I will evaluate as to its effectiveness. I wonder if Fire Service communicators would be viewed differently by the public if we were instead called “Community Safety Mass Education Officers”, or something similar?
As it is, we will never have the luxury of inherent goodwill. If we can’t win hearts, we must win minds. We must clearly identify our role in contributing intelligently and cost-effectively to FRS’ overall community safety effort, and show how our work can be clearly measured. Aside from the campaign evaluation that we practise in South Yorkshire, in my next blog, I’ll outline how we can measure our day-to-day effectiveness to illustrate the value of communication.