3 simple ways to avoid a fire department PR nightmare

Remember to be kind and to keep your professional life off of social media

Southwest Airlines recently found itself in hot water and had to apologize for the actions of one of its employees. That person, a gate agent, had joked with coworkers about the unusual name of one of the passengers on the flight, and later posted a picture of that passenger’s boarding pass to her personal social media account. The passenger, a five-year-old child traveling with her mother, had the name Abcde, apparently pronounced “Abcity.”

Is it normal that an airline employee – or a firefighter – would notice an odd name and even comment on it at work?

Absolutely. Firefighters see a lot of things in the course of their work: things that are gruesome, tragic, funny or just bizarre. Talking and joking about those things with their colleagues after the fact can be a healthy way for firefighters to decompress from often stressful circumstances.

Making comments on the scene, in uniform and within hearing range of the people you are talking about? That should never happen.
Making comments on the scene, in uniform and within hearing range of the people you are talking about? That should never happen. (Photo/USAF)

But making such comments on the scene, in uniform and within hearing range of the people you are talking about? That should never happen. It’s unprofessional, disruptive and, as the girl’s mother said, just not nice.

3 ways to avoid a public relations nightmare

The airline employee went a step further when she took a photo of the child’s boarding pass and posted it to a social media account. At this point, she violated ethical and perhaps even legal standards required by her job and should expect real consequences for doing so.

In retrospect, it seems outrageous. Who would violate the privacy of a customer, a client or a patient and jeopardize their job just to get a few approving clicks on social media?

Unfortunately, the answer is a lot of people. Firefighters and other first responders frequently make the headlines for making inappropriate posts online: photographs taken with unconscious patients, “jokes” on Facebook that target individuals or groups. Some of these actions have led to the termination of firefighters’ employment.

This is a loss on multiple levels: the loss of a trained and experienced employee, real hurt done to the targeted individual or group and, perhaps most importantly, the loss of trust with the service community that extends far beyond the actions of just one individual.

How can this situation be avoided? Using the case of the Southwest gate agent, a couple simple guidelines can be followed.

  1. First, all firefighters and other first responders must be clear that when they are on duty in public, everything they do and say is being closely watched (and probably recorded). This should be the assumption on every call, at all times. So, if you have some funny comment to make about someone’s name or anything else, keep it to yourself until you are away from the scene and out of the public eye.
  2. Then, remember your humanity both on and off the scene. Yes, the little girl had an unusual name, but she is still a little girl, and should be treated with the kindness and care that all children deserve. Her mother was right about that: talking about the child where she could hear the comments was not nice. Nor was it professionally appropriate.
  3. Finally, sharing stories about strange things that happen at work, making jokes about people or events – these things might be okay among the crew that shared that experience, but never, never, should such stories make their way onto a social media account. This seems obvious to some, but lines are not clear for all, and so explicit training is necessary in this area.

Young people who have grown up with social media and living their lives in a public forum may not completely grasp the imperative of privacy and professionalism that comes with being an emergency responder. Clear expectations about how social media may and may not intersect with someone’s professional role must be spelled out early in the hiring process and reinforced regularly. Such training and guidelines serve the individual and the organization, and do much to preserve public trust.

So, there it is. Always remember who and where you are. Be nice. And keep your work and private lives separate when it comes to social media. Pretty simple, right?

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