‘Know when to fold ’em’ during community confrontations

When at a crossroads with the community, digging in is not always the right road if you want the community support in the future

When it comes to communicating with your community, if you’re doing all the right things for all the right reasons, then there’s likely never too much communication.

Key in the process is communicating in the right manner because if that doesn’t happen, you may find yourself facing a losing battle with the public or politicians.

Before we dive into a prime example, let’s step back and consider the potential outcomes of communicating with the public about a particular issue:

"In our business, if we’ve communicated properly, the only time we should find ourselves ready to “fold ’em” is when we’ve successfully dealt with one crisis and we’re moving on to the next – or we’re retiring!" Bashoor writes. (Photo/Getty Images)
  • You get the message out right, meaning you used multiple platforms to reach the community and explained the situation well.
  • You get the message out wrong, meaning you missed key components of the community and didn’t explain the message well.

And regardless of whether your messaging falls into the right or wrong category, there could be external factors at play that can compromise your messaging, perhaps a group that disagrees with the fire department’s plans or wants to see funding used elsewhere – there are many opportunities to face off with such groups.

Communication at the fire station showdown

Here’s one example: A recent dust-up involving a local fire station resulted in the fire department facing some tough realities. The department had to acknowledge that some problematic messaging had left the community confused and unhappy with a particular plan. It got to the point that during a confrontation at the fire station, one citizen said to the deputy chief, “I bet you don’t like seeing all of us here,” referring to the 30+ people who showed up at the last-minute meeting at the fire station to address the issue.

Fortunately, even in the heat of the moment, the deputy chief’s response was professional: “To the contrary. I love to see the community come together for a cause and encourage you to stay together and support the fire department.”

Like water on a fire, the deputy chief’s response took the heat away from the moment. It’s hard to challenge such a statement. On the other hand, imagine what would have happened if the chief responded with more bravado – an attitude that we sometimes want to put forward in moments of frustration. The key to every one of these situations is how YOU (the fire department representative) react.

Professionalism and forthrightness will always be the right avenue. It will be your reactions while under fire that are lasting marks, not only on the message delivered in the short term but also the reputation long term. While we tend to be pretty good at delivering professional and forthright messages, it is our self-control under fire that is typically the challenge. Take a breath, do more listening than talking (or typing), and remember that this isn’t a house fire with people trapped.

Here, the deputy chief set the tone, initiating the steps to get past the dust-up. But what happens when you find yourself at a crossroads with the public?

“Know when to fold ’em”

Let’s say you did get the message out, just not quite right (OK, wrong). Do you dig in and fight for what’s right for your department at the expense of the community relationship/support?

There’s most likely a middle road, and digging in is likely NOT the right road if you want the community support in the future. Sure, EVERY situation is different, and these situations are like cards games. In my best Kenny Rogers voice, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em.”

I’ll submit that sometimes we get so caught up in “being chief” that we lose sight of what’s going on in our communities, lose sight of what the community is and isn’t willing to expect, and, yes, lose sight in how we truly communicate with the community. After all, just because YOU say, “That’s the way it is” doesn’t mean you’re right. And to be clear, I’m not saying it means you’re wrong either, but that’s how the community member might see it.

In the end, sometimes we have to acknowledge that flawed messaging or external factors – or both – means we simply have to “fold ’em” and move to the next project or plan.

Messaging moments

How can you avoid these situations, ensuring that your messaging is “right,” and you’ve done whatever you can to educate the public to achieve buy-in?

Certainly, the first step in that communication process shouldn’t be when you’re standing on the front ramp of the station having a dust-up. The key to this communication issue is both in quantity and consistency. After all, regular community meetings that require the fire department attendance are few and far between compared to their frequency just 15 years ago (before social media). That doesn’t mean we can simply disengage from the public meeting circuit or act like it’s the Wild West and do whatever we want.

While there are indeed some people who don’t have internet service and don’t use smartphones, those numbers continue to shrink daily. But this constituency still needs some method of contact. Recognizing that we do still get out pretty regularly for events or other groups’ meetings, chiefs may still need to consider their own old-school townhall concepts for community meetings, newspaper publishing, mailings or door-to-door campaigns in those areas where there’s no town council or homeowners’ association to engage.

Further, no matter what the platform for the message – whether it’s social media, email, townhalls, mailings or something else – I FULLY recognize, and see daily, that some members of any community and our own fire/EMS departments are going to consume what information they want, whether it’s the “whole loaf” or not. Taking individual slices of information allows people to twist the message to their narrative – this is simply human nature. As such, there will be times when you can do everything possible to hit the “right” messaging, but people will still hear what they want to hear – sticking with the cowboy themes, “you can lead the horse to the water, but you can’t make them drink.”

So what methods of communication are you using? Social media? Mailings? A townhall meeting? Good – at least you’re getting the message out.

Communication is never “one and done”

Communication should always be as positive as possible – and never considered a one-and-done activity. Think of it like the OODA Loop and the Planning P. Communication needs to be a continuous circle that not only closes the loop on particular issues, but keeps your constituency constantly engaged for other issues.

Recognizing that it’s not always the chief giving the message, was your department message that you “love to see the community engagement” or that “you’re a pain in the rear and the chief says I have to do this”? Were you professional and to the point, or did you dance around the issue and stumble through it?

Sure, sometimes you take a gamble standing in front of the community. In our business, if we’ve communicated properly, the only time we should find ourselves ready to “fold ’em” is when we’ve successfully dealt with one crisis and we’re moving on to the next – or we’re retiring!

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