8 ways to foster a public safety-community relationship with PR
RAA’s Mark Tenia shares advice for connecting your messaging with your audience to promote community support
A strong public relations campaign can do more than garner community goodwill. The right messaging can influence voters, inspire donations, interest potential applicants or volunteers and help to keep your community safe.
Mark Tenia, public relations/media manager for the Richmond (Virginia) Ambulance Authority (RAA), is responsible for promoting RAA’s brand, and overseeing the organization’s website content, social media accounts, and promotional and public safety videos. Tenia’s 10 years as a television reporter before making a career switch gives him a unique insight into public relations and reaching an audience.
We sat down with Tenia to pick his brain about communicating effectively with your community.
1. Consider your audience
The first thing Tenia tells people about public relations is to think about your audience when crafting messaging. That’s not just the public, he noted. Your personnel, stakeholders, elected officials and community partners are all different audiences. You can have different messages for all of those audiences, focusing on their interests to find the most engaging, compelling content for each group.
It can be success stories, and there are many different types of success stories within the fire service that can be of interest to the public.
2. Identify your end goal
Are you trying to increase awareness of one of your outreach programs? Add to your membership? Or get ahead of an upcoming event by preparing the community for potential risks?
“The most important thing in reaching the community is making sure that your message gets across,” Tenia stressed.
“You can have a funny video, but if somebody doesn’t know what you were trying to get across in that video, then you failed in terms of why you did it in the first place,” he said. It can be serious, or it can be funny, “but at the end of the day, we have to make sure that people are getting what we’re trying for them to get.”
3. Highlight the good, but don’t ignore the bad
What should you share? Impressive responses, letters of thanks from community members, off-duty excellence and members going above and beyond can all touch your audience.
“I always look for something that has an emotional tie,” Tenia advises. “I think those things are the most effective ways of reaching the public and getting your message across, whether it be a sudden cardiac arrest save, or somebody that suffers from addiction that was connected to recovery resources because of a program that you have in your agency.”
While those successes help enhance your reputation and improve recruitment, don’t shy away from negative press, Tenia noted. Negative stories can be opportunities to educate the community about the nature of emergency services: “One of the things that I have always said is that when you are faced with something negative, say it’s response times or whatever it may be, those are all opportunities to garnish support from the public, because that’s an opportunity for you to explain well, this is why we were late to that call – because we’re having problems with staffing and we’re having problems with staffing because we haven’t been adequately supported.”
“Those are all opportunities for you to be transparent and communicate what’s going on, the challenges you’re facing with the public,” he said. “And when you take those opportunities, you can turn it around and turn into advocacy, because we do such an important job for the public and it’s a job that the public depends on.”
If you want the public to be on your side, you need to connect the dots so they realize that in order for you do this job that you want to do well for them at a high level, you need to be supported adequately, whether that’s increased funding or proper 911 utilization.
4. Calendar your public safety messages
Tenia presents with public relations colleagues around the country on how to engage your audience as a public safety agency. One activity they perform with their classes is a calendar exercise – creating an annual calendar highlighting opportunities for messaging, either a press release or a social media post.
As a river city, RAA promotes water safety every summer. The winter months provide an opportunity to communicate holiday safety tips, like how to keep decorations from becoming a choking or fire hazard. I can tell you from experience, at Lexipol, we notice a significant increase in readers viewing our FireRescue1 “How to put out a grease fire” article during the week of Thanksgiving – hopefully in an abundance of caution before frying their bird.
Plan messaging for awareness days and months, seasonal and holiday safety, as well as the major events and risks specific to your community.
“Those are all opportunities to get messages out there,” Tenia said. “Once you start creating that calendar and doing those things, it becomes easier each year.”
5. Lean into analytics
Though it can be difficult to identify what to post where, Tenia cautions people not to post the same thing on all their platforms.
“Some things I just use Instagram for and some things I just use for YouTube or Facebook,” he reported. “It’s figuring out OK, what audience do I have on this platform and what’s going to appeal to them most? But at the same time, I also try and cross-promote, so I may create a video and upload it to YouTube, but I may post it the text to drive people to the YouTube channel or I may post something on Facebook and drive people to our website.”
The great thing about a lot of these platforms is they have analytics with them, Tenia pointed out. “So you can see the ages – you can see of all the different demographics in terms of sex, race, location of your audience – and that will help you kind of determine what is the most appropriate message for this platform.”
Tenia encourages agencies to do their research into their demographics and social media algorithms, but notes trial and error plays a part – put posts up and see what works.
6. Partner for success
Tagging community and public safety partners is a great way to expand your reach. It can also have exponential benefits.
“What I have found to be the most successful,” Tenia shared, “is making sure that you are working with partners, and you are tagging each other and you’re both cross-promoting the messages that you have out there. That seems to kind of break the mold and get your message to where you want to get to, and that that’s as much reach as possible.”
Not to mention, good working relationships with industry and community partners can open the doors to unique opportunities.
Tenia worked with the American Heart Association early on in his tenure at RAA, and the organization provided helping hands at CPR demonstrations. “They knew whenever they needed us, they could pick up the phone and we were going to try and make it work if we could,” he shared. That strong relationship led to RAA being tapped when a former NFL Super Bowl champion needed help providing CPR demonstrations at his local camp – an opportunity which prompted the athlete to promote RAA to his hundreds of thousands of followers.
7. Involve personnel, to a point
Don’t be surprised if you find your personnel are reluctant to get behind the camera for your social initiatives. That’s how first responders are built, Tenia noted. They want to do their jobs, they don’t want to be promoted or highlighted.
“You have to communicate to your staff and get them to understand the importance … why they need to promote what they’re doing and the successes that they’re experiencing,” he said. “Once you get them to understand that, I I think it becomes much easier to do fun things. And for me, I have found people that necessarily weren’t willing participants in the beginning that have started to actually like the content that’s produced and seeing that it actually gets a reaction.”
Even willing participants need coaching. Tenia teaches them to get comfortable being uncomfortable and to try new things to see what works for them and your agency.
A little reluctance is OK, but don’t force the issue. Tenia assures his staff, if they don’t want to be on camera, he’s not going to put them on camera. “It’s very obvious when you have someone that is not a willing participant or doesn’t have that desire to be on camera,” he noted. “It comes across whether it’s an interview or whether it’s social media … and that goes against what you’re trying to do, which is connect with your audience.”
Once people see your messaging start to work, then you’re going to find more willing participants.
8. Focus on people
Social messaging can be a valuable recruitment tool. One of the first things Tenia did at RAA was to talk to a lot of different providers and tried to figure out what brought them to EMS in the first place.
“That’s one of the most satisfying things, is figuring out and hearing about everyone’s story in terms of how they arrived in EMS, because there are so many different and engaging and wonderful stories about how people got into this job,” he said. “Once you figure that out, and you kind of tap into that, you know what to promote because those are the same things that are going to bring other people into that position.”
Promoting employees’ successes also has an impact on retention, Tenia pointed out. “You’re highlighting their good work and there’s so many unique experiences … so many different things you get to do that you would never get to do in any other position or any other industry that is appealing to folks that may not know what they want to do with their life.”
Don’t shy away from highlighting former employees, either. Tenia finds value in promoting stories of providers who have gone on to other opportunities, e.g., physician assistant, helicopter medic or physician. “It all started at our agency, he noted. “We take those opportunities to highlight former staff and show people that may not necessarily think they’re interested in EMS, but maybe you weren’t interested in medicine or maybe you are interested in firefighting; ultimately, whatever it may be, it starts here.”
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