Using Social Media to Engage and Inform

A PIO’s Perspective

CarolinaFireJournal - Bill Suthard
Bill Suthard
08/07/2015 -

This year I was given the opportunity to speak at the 2015 South Atlantic Fire Rescue Expo in Raleigh (SAFRE) about my use of social media as a Fire Service Public Information Officer (PIO). We use social media quite a bit in the “Ville,” with updates and incident posts populated in near-real time as it happens. We certainly didn’t start out that way, however as we progressed and received feedback from our “customers” we learned and developed an approach to social media that keeps our intended audience(s) informed and educated on what we do — WHILE simultaneously feeding and satisfying the media with the information they need in order to do their jobs effectively and accurately. Before we dive deeper into how we use social media; here are some statistics and facts on social media:


Merriam-Webster defines social media as “forms of electronic communication through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as images, videos etc).”

Social Media platforms include: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Pinterest and many more. Several studies have shown that, on average, people spend over 23 percent of their time on social media sites each day and three times as much time on Social Media sites than on email. While Facebook continues to remain the top social media platform out there; other platforms are rapidly gaining on Facebook, with Facebook’s overall growth slowing. I will specifically focus on the three platforms that we use here in Huntersville (Facebook, Twitter & Instagram)

User Statistics:

Facebook: One billion users — users share 2.5 billion pieces of content each day

Twitter: 560 million users — 5,700 Tweets occur every second

Instagram: 150 Million users

Recent studies have shown that multi-platform use is on the rise: 52 percent of online adults now use two or more social media sites, a significant increase from 2013, when it stood at 42 percent of Internet users. Why is social media popular and a good, free tool that we should use? I believe it’s two fold — the ease of use and the ability to choose your content — by following, friending, etc. Social media is extremely easy to access, read, update and share with social media apps allowing mobile users to receive content on their mobile devices — smart phones, tablets, e-readers, etc. — versus desktop users — computers and laptops.

Access Statistics:

Facebook: 68 percent are mobile users.

Twitter: 86 percent are mobile users

Instagram: 98 percent are mobile users

How We Use Social Media

As mentioned earlier, we are very active on social media, specifically on the three platforms we listed. Our specific goal in using social media is to keep our customers informed. We define our customers as: Huntersville residents, visitors, town leaders and the news media. We live very close to Charlotte so we have the attention of several large and active news media networks. We feel that each is an important stakeholder. The residents and town leaders see firsthand our call volume — excluding medical calls which we never post — and that we are actively engaged in and protecting the community.

We post our incidents in near real-time, so residents and visitors can see when we have incidents and act accordingly — i.e. Interstate accidents, road closures resulting from incidents. We post the incident basics as soon as possible — what, where, who is affected and that we are mitigating the issue. We define as soon as possible as near real-time. This provides the media with the information they need to make a decision.

Many times they simply re tweet our post, however they also use the post and updates to decide if they’re they going to respond to the scene, determining if the incident warrants coverage, etc. Many times their questions are answered with our Tweets. Over the last two years since we’ve adopted this approach, we’ve noticed a dramatic decrease in media calls to the stations and the PIO during the incident. This allows us to focus on mitigating the emergency while also streamlining the information that is going out to the public.

The PIO has also realized a dramatic decrease in formal media releases and media advisories, with the news media pulling this information straight from our time lines and/or Twitter feeds. We‘ve received very positive feedback from our subscribers; they feel that knowing what is going on in the community, as it happens, is extremely important to them.

As the positive feedback flowed in to us directly and to our town leadership we ramped up our throughput. We use mobile devices to provide these real-time updates — departmental iPads, iPhones. We actively use our platforms to inform and educate our subscribers — safety tips, fire prevention materials, training events, controlled forestry burns — and we eagerly share postings and information from other town departments such as parks and recreation, police and public works. We created the hash tag #OneTownOneTeam to demonstrate our cross departmental cooperativeness. We share that hash tag across all three social media platforms. In the end we believe that we are providing our customers with ROI (return on investment). They’re able to see how their tax dollars are providing public safety protection. The Huntersville PIO has essentially become the CEO or COO for the department: The Chief Engagement Officer or Chief Outreach Officer.

Social Media Tips

You must be interactive on social media. Always be transparent by responding to complaints in public and answering questions that are posted. Respond in “plain speak,” be genuine and down to earth. Attempt to respond as timely as possible; mobile devices will help you with that. Understand who your primary customers are and the order of their importance: residents, visitors, other town departments, town leaders, sister agencies. Fellow industry professionals — firefighters, EMTs, etc. — will follow you to see what you’re doing, so be careful not to solely cater to them using terminology that only they will understand.

What to Post

Post real-time updates on fires, accidents, rescue incidents. We recommend avoiding the typical medical call. Include hazmat calls and or large scale incidents within your service district. Post fire prevention tips and material. Use the NFA, NFPA and other professional publications to help educate. Many of these will have hash tags and material that you can use and reference. Post fire department events, fund raisers, blood drives and departmental initiatives. Be sure to help promote similar events of fellow departments/agencies — especially adjacent and mutual aid agencies. Post department relevant facts, accomplishments, and initiatives — educate your customer on your department. These educated customers will be the ones that support you at budget time and some may even become your advocates.

Give customers a reason to follow you. Post pictures when possible; posts with pictures are viewed, shared and re tweeted more than posts without. If you post a link to a story, specifically on Facebook, the link will populate with a preview image and this preview is pulled from the “open graph tags in the HTML of the page” you are posting. You can change this preview image — make sure it’s an interesting image. We typically change all of our preview images to personalize the link and to drive more interaction.

For Public Information Officers, use your near real-time updates to coordinate media response — answer basic questions by posting what, where, when and how. Keep updating as information becomes available and only post about your incident and your agency. Avoid posting the real time updates for another agency unless they ask you to).

What Not to Post

Avoid posting links on Twitter that lead your follower to Facebook in order to read the post. Linking a post on one platform to a post on another platform is not a successful process. Not all of your followers are multi-platform users. You will lose followers or stymie your growth if this is your approach. Make sure your content on each platform is unique — change them up across the platform, avoid duplicated posts if at all possible. Facebook will allow you to add more details and pictures than Twitter. Use Twitter as it was intended — a micro-blog and use Facebook for more details. Feel free to use each to add to the story, but don’t just link one to the other as many agencies do — don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

We discussed posting pictures — be careful what you share. Post pictures from a distance; always try to stay at apparatus or scene tape distance in your pictures. Avoid pictures of anything that can identify a victim or patient — it’s your duty to protect their privacy! In Huntersville, once we determine that a fatality may be involved in a specific incident, we slow down dramatically on what we post and share. No one ever wants to learn about his or her loved one on social media. A good rule of thumb is to post pictures of scene from a distance. This provides a good overview of the scene and avoids posting too much detail.

Also avoid posting “posed firefighters” at the scene. Imagine how that looks to a victim — the worst day of their life and your local public servants are posing in front of your cherished, demolished home. If you’re going to post a picture of firefighters, post one of them doing work, mitigating the emergency, conducting overhaul or even salvage operations. Those images go a long way. NEVER post pictures inside the home or of personal belongings. If you’re going to post something educational — food on the stove, improperly placed heating devices, etc. — make sure the home owner is aware and that the investigator, fire marshal and or chief officer is on board with the idea. Posting something inappropriate ruins your intended message. Once that image or post goes out you can’t get it back, even if you delete it.

When to Post

There is a lot of debate on this. Studies have shown that public engagement (specifically on Facebook) is higher on weekends, as much as 30 percent more. One Facebook, study shows that one p.m. posts gets more shares and three p.m. posts get more clicks. Generally anything between nine a.m. and 7 p.m. will work. Early morning and post dinner may not be as successful. Weekday studies (Mon-Fri) show that 86 percent of all posts occur between Monday and Friday with audience participation spiking on Thursday and Friday. So the take away is that your engagement is probably — this is not a science, just a general belief — going to spike Thursday through Saturday, so you may want to focus on your posts towards the end of the week. 

Bill Suthard lives in Huntersville with his wife and son. He works, part-time, for the Huntersville Fire Department. He is a Level II N.C. Firefighter, a N.C. EMT-B and a Level II Fire Life Safety Educator. Suthard is the Huntersville Fire Department’s Public Information Officer and the department spokesperson. Suthard also works full time for the Charlotte Fire Department where he is currently assigned to the Communications Division. In Charlotte Suthar also runs the Facebook and Twitter accounts for the Communications Division (ALARM) and also assists the separtment’s civilian PIO with management of their two Twitter accounts (@CharlotteFD and @CharlotteFire).Huntersville Fire DepartmentThe Huntersville Fire Department is a three-station fire department covering 62 square miles in northern Mecklenburg County. The department is just north of Charlotte and includes two lakes (Lake Norman and Mountain Island Lake) serving a population of over 50,000 residents. In 2014 Huntersville Fire Department ran 3,166 calls for service (Fire and EMS) and has 74 part-time employees and approximately 20 volunteer Huntersville_FDInstagram: Huntersville_FD

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