March 31, 2015
By Ronny J. Coleman
Have you heard about the communications concept called the news cycle? It refers to the time period of creating news and replacing that news with a new subject. A lot of our news today is so fast-paced that if we don't catch it in the first 24 hours it doesn't matter. On the flip side, the insatiable appetite of the news media for something new often results in sensationalism with no respect for significance. Unfortunately I grew up in the generation where news was from Edward R. Murrow and Walter Winchell, so modern news reporting sometimes looks more like entertainment than news broadcasting.
But that's not really the point for this article. News articles can help you or hurt you. Moreover, in this age of social media, they can acquire a life of their own and can become a real liability to your organization if not handled properly. Bad news could happen to you. One thing we all need to remember is that the internet is forever! The story may quickly fade from the TV news, but it lives on in cyberspace.
Of course, I have no idea what generation I'm talking to when I put out an article like this, so I'm going to have to make the assumption that many of you may have a different perspective on this idea of yesterday's news. Nonetheless, I have reason for writing this article. My reasons are based on reviewing a series of stories that somehow or other have been attached to the fire service and refuse to be forgotten in the 24-hour news cycle. It's probably not important that I talk about the specific events, because that would sound too judgmental. Instead I would like to use this topic to focus on the image of the fire service in general. Are we really the good guys (and gals) that we purport to be? Or can our actions result in a public perception that is negative.
For purposes of definition, "reputation management" is the influence or control that you exert over your personal or organizational reputation. It was originally a public relations term that was peddled as a service to business and industry to help create a reputation. The fire service version was issued as a White Paper under the sponsorship of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen's Association.
I'm not going to repeat the context of that document. For one reason, it’s great. Everybody should have a copy of it. It should be given out to all entry level firefighters. I would hope that many of you have already read it and then followed through with what it proposes. It is outstanding. But there is a lesson to be learned in the review of the current news cycle: We didn't learn the lesson! Front page headlines of many communities today are attacking the reputation of the fire service in a very graphic way. This cannot be denied. Again I refrain from being too specific about cases that can be examined as examples of how our reputations can be destroyed in 24 hours. However, I won't restrain the discussion of why this is an increasing danger to the fire service.
Every time that a story reaches headlines proportions – or is highlighted on the 6 o'clock news – it erodes the ability for us to take the high road in public safety. The fire service is among the most highly trusted group of individuals in our society. Think about this: Who else, besides the fire service can go into a personal residence and participate in a wide range of very stressful behaviors to save people's lives and protect their property from damage, without being under suspicion for anything illegal? What I'm talking about is our reputation for integrity and honesty.
One of the first topics I would ask you to think about, as you read this article, is the concept of personal accountability. What this all boils down to in the long run is the behavior of individuals. Individuals who act badly may be embarrassed but it is their organization that loses their community trust. How good of a job are we doing of making sure that personal accountability is an important virtue in our organizations?
We like to think of ourselves as being a traditional occupation with a lot of symbols, a special kind of camaraderie, and a special respect in society. However, the word tradition can never be exchanged for an excuse to engage in inappropriate and un-excusable behavior.
Early this morning I typed into my search engine the words "fire chief in trouble" and received 15 pages of entries. I then typed into the box "police chiefs in trouble" and received 29 pages of entries. I guess it's only fair the police chiefs get more criticism than fire chiefs, because police budgets are usually twice of what fire budgets are. But, it gets more interesting than that. I typed in the words "police chiefs in trouble support groups" and received 36 pages of response. A similar request for fire Chiefs resulted in 53 pages of response. We are in trouble less, but have a greater need for support. Why?
My main theme in this article is to raise the awareness of the need to have a code of conduct for your organization. It should be accompanied by a highly focused system of accountability. You need to assure that any behavior inconsistent with the reputation of your department is limited. The secondary theme is to make sure that you train people on this. You cannot simply hope that they will not do things wrong. There's a management book out that characterizes this statement by reminding us that hope is not a method.1 We need to add it to our library.
Lastly, if you're one of the individuals who hasn't read the reputation management white paper, I suggest you go to the web site and download it today. It should be given to all chief officers as part of their orientation. It should be given to every company officer as part of their training and education. Then, it should be given to every rookie firefighter during their orientation. Ignorance of its implications should never be an excuse for why something went wrong in your department.
Remember this: Reputations take years to create but can be destroyed in minutes.
Ronny J. Coleman is the retired State Fire Marshal for the State of California. Among his many roles in the fire service, he currently serves as Chairman of the Volunteer Committee for the California State Firefighters Association, President of the National Fire Heritage Center, and California Alternate Director on the National Volunteer Fire Council.
1 Sullivan, Gordon R., Harper, Michael V., Hope is not a Method, Crown Business, October 1996