Social media can look like a mine field to volunteer departments; learning where and how to step can keep you out of harm’s way and return tangible benefits
By Rick Markley
You can hear the collective groan from volunteer and paid on-call fire officers over a certain age at the mere mention of “Facebook.” That groan is often accompanied by a scowl and a head shake.
You can’t fault these over-40 officers for their reservations about social media. For years, firefighting publications and sites have shared a seemingly endless stream of stories about firefighters and fire departments getting into trouble over their social media behavior. Whether its incidents of harassing other members of the department or threatening to harm community members (or protesters), the consequences are real and caution is warranted.
Yet, many volunteer fire departments can use Facebook to advance their causes. Those causes can be better community fire and life safety, more community and political support for fire department funding issues, and of course recruiting the increasingly scarce volunteer firefighters.
In short, the risks of having a department Facebook presence can be kept in check and the benefits cannot be ignored. Here are the top five things volunteer fire departments must do to win at Facebook.
1. Set policy
A social media SOG or SOP will no more guarantee that nothing goes wrong than an apparatus SOP will ensure that no rig is ever crashed. Yet, like apparatus driving guidelines, a social media policy spells out clear expectations for use and behavior and what happens when the policy is violated. If you want that policy to also cover how your members behave on social media — not just when they are using the department’s Facebook page, be careful. This gets into First Amendment territory and it’s wise to look at how other departments have constructed their policies and consult with an attorney.
Here are some examples of social media policy templates put out by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. And, here’s a look at some of the articles noted fire service lawyer Curt Varone has penned on the topic.
2. Choose the administrator
Much like you pick who can and who cannot talk to the media on behalf of the fire department, pick the person or persons who will be charged with running the department’s Facebook page. It may seem logical to select one of the department’s younger members who grew up using Facebook. But that may not be the best choice.
The technology isn’t all that difficult, and with a bit of coaching even the saltiest member can become a capable, if not downright savvy, Facebook administrator. The more important consideration when picking an administrator is that person’s level of maturity and soundness of judgement. While shrouded behind a digital curtain, this person will be the voice and face of your fire department. And that person needs to have the good sense to know what to post and what not to post — the public, elected officials, media and your own firefighters will be watching.
3. Give your audience meaningful information
It’s tempting to use a department’s Facebook page to solicit funds. Most volunteer departments desperately need more funding and Facebook is a great way to reach your donor community. However, make these pleas for help rare. Some experts on social media for nonprofits recommend only using 20 percent of your posts to ask for financial help. The remaining 80 percent of the posts should be dedicated to helping improve the lives of your online community members.
Finding good content to fill that 80 percent can be challenging for nonprofit groups. But volunteer departments have plenty of meaningful information at their fingertips.
The first step is to know your audience — your community. This is something most departments already have a handle on. It involves knowing things like the how your community breaks down by age, income levels, education levels, interests, etc. Then it’s a matter of finding life-safety material aimed at each segment. Articles on safe driving, seasonal risk mitigation, weather-related threats and senior care are some of the things you can share on your Facebook page.
Becoming your community’s number-one online safety resource is not just good for your image, it may well save some of their lives.
Also, share images and short posts on the valuable work the firefighters do. This can include training night highlights, on-scene images (be careful here to not identify victims) or the firefighters doing good work in the community. And whenever possible, use images or videos; this will make your posts more engaging.
4. Be engaged with your online community
“If you build it, they will come” may be sound advice for a ghostly baseball field in Iowa, but it won’t fly on Facebook. The department’s Facebook administrators need to be actively posting new content. Depending on the size of your community, once every day or two may be enough. But as you grow your social presence, you may need to make several posts per day. There is scheduling software available that allows your administrators to do several posts at once and schedule them for different times and days. Also, it’s perfectly OK to repost an item that was important or well-received. The chances that each post will reach all of your followers is slim, so for many, the repost may be their first time seeing it.
And remember, Facebook can be a great tool for recruiting new members. This impact extends beyond the overt posts asking for new members to come in and complete applications. If every post demonstrates the value the department brings to the community and the values the department holds dear, you will show the department in its best-possible light. This, in turn, will attract Facebook followers who recognize the department’s value and identify with its values. Then, it’s a matter of converting those like-minded followers into volunteer firefighters.
5. Mute the trolls
Remember when trolls were the stuff of fairy tales meant to scare and thrill children? Now they’ve gone from tormenting the “once upon a time” crowd to tormenting anyone with a social media presence. Your volunteer fire department may never find itself in the cross hairs of these online malcontents. But like any low-frequency, high-consequence event, it’s best to be prepared for them.
Trolls are constantly spoiling for a digital fight and thrive off the attention garnered from the escalating hostility they create. Experts advise to not engage them in hand-to-hand online combat. Rather, it is best to see if you can quietly diffuse them. If not, use the Facebook option to hide their comments. This is often better than all-out blocking them from your page. Blocking them can further anger them and they may find other ways to come at you with renewed vigor; hiding their comments makes them think their vile is still visible.
Take the time to make sure your troll is really a troll. You could have a real member of your community with a beef that needs to be addressed. Even if this community member’s beef isn’t legitimate, it is real in his mind and needs to be resolved. And research shows that people who have complaints adequately resolved have a stronger sense of loyalty to an organization than do people who have never had a complaint.