The fire service must become engaged in the art of politics. More specifically, the fire service must become adept at functioning within the realm of a socio-political world that begins at the local level and trends to the federal. Comfortable ability must accompany the front line firefighter and the chief officer with fluency at the level at which one has expertise and experience. Fundamentally, every one of our folks must be able to convey a message — our message — to the body politic. We must empower the entire department and fire service to be able to communicate with any politician at the level at which they may be encountered. To accomplish this feat, we need a few basic skills training reminders.
Always Tell the Truth
I steal this, as I am so oft likely to do, from my friend Carter Jones. Carter speaks frequently about the need for honesty and purity in our message. As a bastion of trust and confidence, our occupation cannot stand irreverence or manipulation in the pure core and heart of our messages. Firefighters, when talking to elected officials, simply need to say the truth, however painful it may superficially seem. Politicians are not blind to the stretched story, although anecdotally they may purportedly be proficient in its use. Speak only the truth or speak not at all. A tainted message will destroy the whole effort. It is better to say, “I don’t know” or “I’ll have to find that out for you,” than to offer something in conjecture when providing your perspective. You may not always have the most money in a fight, but you can have the truth for free.
Sugar and Salt
I believe strongly in my late granny’s adage that you get more with sugar than you do with salt. Insults, threats, and innuendos will get results very quickly but usually not the results you desire. Don’t offer stories of fatalities and tragedy. Only the weak minded are distracted, or attracted if that’s what you are after, by misfortune and coercive propaganda. Numbers and data coated in a layer of praline and presented on a platter of usefulness is my favorite.
“Mr. or Mrs. Elected Official, here is what I have, where I got it, why I believe it, how you can use it, and the results it will bring.”
We are a passionate lot. Our profession dictates the activities of our daily lives and often overrides our vision of our place within the community. All good attributes, but only to an extent. Emotions are important for motivation and drive but must be tempered with a larger social perspective for greater political impact and gain.
Speak the Home Language
You are a voter and you are from somewhere. That somewhere has people and most likely an elected official. Tell the politician where you are from. Make a home front connection. Connect on a local level. Don’t be afraid to bring humanism and a local connection in to the conversation (if it’s real). Again, you are speaking to socially conscience persons who got where they are due to connectivity. Don’t snow them or they will snow ball you! You and your department/staff/family are a real part of Somewhere, USA.
Politicians see special interest groups all day long and obtain, purposefully or not, a demeanor to handle certain approaches from an individual or group. Don’t build up a wall with an unreasonable air or appearance. Be sincere, be yourself. You don’t have to come across as anything more than you are. God gave you your skill set, now use that set wisely.
If you are not registered and you don’t participate, stay home. I need not say more. P.S. — this applies to your whole department.
Don’t Forget The Staff
The behind the scene workers in many political offices are where the true rubber meets the road. No secret here, but don’t forget who the first person the elected official will turn to with a question or to give directions. Who will field the question when the elected official asks his or her right hander “Who is the person that knows about fire in my district?” Your rapport with the staffer can make or break that connection quickly. Get their number and make sure they have yours (or e-mail).
Battles Versus the War
Remember, the elected official is human too. They have many hats to wear. We simply want the one worn by the elected official in a political fire fight to be a fire helmet, traditional style please. But at times it will not go your way. Focus more on the war than the battles. Your strategy, plan, and aim should be at long term goals, not daily activities. Allow for compromise and understand the world outside your own when forming the battle plans. As the battle develops, remember the premise of Sugar and Salt through patience and emotional control.
I love the fact that I was able to inherit at the association office a hand written note from Richard T. Mincey, a long time lobbyist and general guru of the South Carolina Fire Service. Richard’s note lists, in one of his 11 lobbyist points, a champion. He suggests choosing a champion for your cause, taking care of that champion with timely information, and never leaving that champion. In any struggle, some will stand out as key players (think sports, sciences, and politics). If the offensive line leaves the QB, a mess ensues. Likewise with the fire service. Find that champion and use them as your strength and corner stone. Listen to them. Chances are they can help you win the war. (Let me know and I can send you Richard’s other thoughts.)
In short, be yourself, be comfortable, know your topic, and observe the golden rule, and more than likely your skills in the Art of Politics will gain momentum.
Art sometimes is an abstract, and you will have to find your way through the art of politics on an issue by issue basis. A diverse core skill set is important for the firefighter to bring to the political arena. Politics is a difficult job function for any rank within the profession, but multi-level involvement is paramount and the individual’s skill set and comfort is key to success. Good luck.
Joe Palmer currently serves as the Executive Director of the SC State Firefighters’ Association in Columbia SC. Previously he served for 14 years as the Fire Chief for the City of Newberry, SC, where he still lives with his family. Joe is a Past President of the Firefighters’ Association.