I mentioned in my rant the other day that I had two parts of the Aurora tragedy to discuss. The issue is the increasing antagonism being projected toward public safety professionals. Our fire and EMS leaders must change their approach in how we interact with the public. Even if you are operating in an extraordinarily ethical environment, if you don't take to time to project that image to your stakeholders, you are leaving the opportunity to chance that your image will be shaped by others, especially if they have conflicting priorities.
Take for instance, the Aurora situation again. The first time I read the Post article, I felt Crummy and Murphy were insinuating that the AFD did not respond in a timely fashion. My inner cynic believed that the article was written with a slant intended to drive a negative reaction from readers. While I still have a little difficulty believing otherwise, my esteemed colleague Dave Statter very reasonably discussed other perspectives on the article. His most valuable point though, and the point I want to drive home here, is that time and again, even if you don't engage the media, the story will still be told. Therefore, if you want the story to be favorable to your perception of how things occurred, it's best that you do the telling and not leave it open for conjecture. In the Aurora case, fortunately, the public didn't bite. As the commentary was overwhelmingly supportive of the AFD, I'm assuming they do a pretty good job of engaging the public on a routine basis.
Conversely, check out this article from Philly.com, where a small volunteer fire company in Bensalem, PA managed to get a million-dollar fire boat through a Homeland Security grant. The reporter did a good job of not only obtaining perspectives from the individuals directly involved, but also some outside observations.
When I began to read this article, I began with a slight bias, a little defensive, having just engaged in a battle of our own over the purchase of a much-needed rescue boat, and expecting some of the same kinds of criticism we faced. But after reading the article, I found myself struggling with the notion of a department with a quarter-million dollar a year budget allocating that whole quarter of a million (plus some) in maintaining a piece of any equipment, much less a fire boat in an area where there is a limited use for it. The author was able to illustrate there is obviously a problem. There is real conflict here, not conjecture. The author didn't throw a statement out and leave it hanging. She performed research, she sought different perspectives, and she let you come to conclusions of your own. If the chief of that department didn't expect this story to be written someday, he was deluding himself.
Today's fire service leaders must understand their adversaries. I don't like to portray the media, politicians, other departments and agencies as "adversaries", but in the context of public opinion, if they aren't singing your song, they aren't necessarily on your side. The management of the "song being sung" at the 2012 London Olympic Games is a great example. In an article I heard on NPR's On The Media, Olympic organizers quickly realized after the Atlanta Games that non-accredited media were an uncontrolled force throughout that event. These days, there is even a strategy for providing a unified message though accredited AND non-accredited media, and organizers have even come up with methods by which non-accredited media is given access in different ways where that message is conveyed. This is particularly useful in guiding the message tactfully, and not waiting to see if whatever happens to pop into the heads of the media representatives ends up being the story.
As a leader, you must understand what you are up against. If you go into a controversial situation with the attitude that everything will go your way because you are the fire department, and everyone loves the fire department, you will be putting yourself in a losing position when the court of public opinion swings away from you. In the fire boat scenario, a good strategy would have been to shape that story before it ever hit the paper, and herein lies the rub. It doesn't do you any good to spin your story positively if the real story is going to be that you are operating unethically or incompetently, because someone will eventually find that out. And when they do, the articles like these will seem tame; nobody likes being taken advantage of, especially the media. Not only must you project your commitment to the best practices of our industry, you must actually be doing those things, not just putting up a facade.
In warfare, if you underestimate your adversary, you are setting yourself up to fail. Likewise, in the arena of public opinion, if you think that media and other publicly accessible individuals won't shape your ability to succeed in fulfilling your mission, you are very much mistaken. But the core issue I think should be conveyed is not that we should be controlling the media and others through manipulation. The issue instead should be that if you conduct your organization transparently and ethically, you shouldn't have to worry about public perception. The perception should always be positive if you continually keep the public's best interests in mind.