Fire chief jujitsu for media management

Knowing the rules of the media game helps fire service leaders better use it to manage public opinion on key issues

In the most recent Fire Chief newsletter, Linda Willing wrote about when and how fire department leaders should engage critics. One mark of a well-written piece is that it moves your train of thought further down the line. It sent me down the media relations track.

The first whistle stop was at the whether or not to address every criticism station. There are two schools of thought.

One is that responding will only keep the story going; it's best to ignore the criticism and leave it to die. The other is that an attack that goes unchallenged must be true; no response is a tacit admission of agreement.

For fire chiefs, the better of these two strategies is to address every attack. If a story doesn't have the legs to continue without a chief's remarks, it is likely to go away just as quick with a chief's comments. In fact, failing to address an issue can keep a story going with follow up stories driven by speculation.

More important is that, with few exceptions, media reports live for years, even decades, on the Internet. It doesn't behoove a fire department to have the only voice on record in a conflict being that of the opposition.

And that's important because it is more vital that the facts drive a story than it is to simply have the fire department's opinion on record.

Wrong argument
For example, the Washington Post recently ran an editorial questioning why there are so many paid firefighters when NFPA statistics show that the number of fires has dropped. It's not the first time we've heard that argument and it won't be the last.

Of course what we all understand and the general public is at risk of missing are the nuances of those declining numbers. Yes, the numbers are down, but EMS calls are way up, the threat posed by modern house fires is way up and the same amount of firefighters are needed whether they fight one house fire per week or three. And we may as well toss in the list of reasons volunteer firefighter ranks have shrunk in the past 20 years.

And this eases us into the next station — managing public opinion by managing the media.

Generally, members of the professional media are driven by the rules of their game; factual reporting and objectivity are the two biggies. One of the most effective ways to influence the media is to call them out for breaking their own rules — I'm not smart enough to have figured that out, but I am lucky enough to have a close friend who did and won a national award for his research.

Where this is most likely to come into play for fire departments is in a case like irate taxpayers bent that firefighters shop for food on duty with a fire truck or like calls for reduced staffing because of a drop in total fires.

If the media devotes too much time to the irate taxpayer, fire department leaders can call them out for violating their own rules of being objective. This is a good technique for correcting how a story was covered.

Equal isn't equal
There are times when reporters and editors will confuse objectivity with equal time. Political candidates during an election cycle will complain that they are not given equal time to their opponent in media coverage.

Again, fire department leaders shouldn't be concerned with equal time when the opposition is flat-out wrong — as is the case with those calling for fewer firefighters based on NFPA fire data. Getting equal time here is a losing proposition because of the implied validity the coverage gives.

I'm veering off my friend's research, but here is where I would challenge the media on its rule of factual reporting. Put another way, covering someone's wrong assertion is not a case of reporters upholding their rule of objectivity, but one of them failing in their pursuit of facts.

Managing public opinion may seem like an insignificant part of a fire officer's job. Yet, public opinion controls who is elected and how they behave once elected. And those who are elected often control the fate of the fire department.

Issues as sweeping as challenges to fire department staffing or as seemingly laughable as complaints about how firefighters get their food will pop up again. Each has the potential to shift public opinion and make life much more difficult for firefighters and officers.

Understanding how the media works and using those rules to your advantage is one way to keep public opinion and public officials on your side. 

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