There is no doubt that social media has changed the way we interact with each other. A fear of social media, and its potential for negative impact, has led many jurisdictions and agencies to avoid having a social media presence altogether. I can name several surrounding public safety and local government agencies that have a very minimal (if any) presence on social media. I’ve been told by leaders of a few, as well as some fellow public information officers, that having NO social media presence is the best approach. I’m sure those of you that know me personally, and professionally, understand that my opinion could not be more to the contrary. I believe that social media, if managed properly and professionally, WILL make a positive impact in your community and your agency. In this quarterly article, I’m going to give you an example we experienced this holiday season — and every bit of it started with, and ended via Social Media.
In my previous articles, I’ve discussed how our fire department uses multiple social media platforms to “Engage and Inform” our customers — residents, visitors and public safety partners. I also discussed the need to branch out into the community and seek to participate in community related “opportunities.” This promotes your department, tells your agency’s “story” and strengthens the community around you. As I mentioned in my summer article; our town’s motto is #OneTownOneTeam. While this motto reflects the collective and collaborative partnership of our town departments working together, it also reflects our connection within the community when we participate and share our stories. Our Hashtag #OneTownOneTeam is recognized, shared and used frequently within our community and we’re very proud of that. I’m often stopped on the street in town and even while visiting other fire departments and they say to me #OneTownOneTeam. Sometimes it is to give me a hard time like all firefighters do — but some are residents approving and proud of the hashtag. This is indicative of how much of a positive impact our social media outreach is and how much our customers appreciate it. We’ve noticed a growth in community support for our agency initiatives, staffing, increasing budgets and capital expenses. A very positive impact that we did not fully expect, but have happily realized over the years.
The Cone Weed
In this article, we’re discussing social media positive impacts, and “Cone Weed” did just that for our community during the holiday season. What started off as a funny, harmless, firefighter prank, gained national attention and turned into a viral social media post that raised money for families in need just in time for the holidays. So, I thought I’d share this story with you.
Over the summer a left-over traffic cone on the side of the roadway, just across from our fire station 2 (Beatties Ford Road Station), began to grow a small green weed through the hole at the top of the cone. Firefighters watched weekly as the property owner mowed around the cone — instead of moving it — and for weeks, eventually months, the weed continued to grow, unabated. As this small green weed grew into a ginormous tree-like weed, firefighters could not help but to discuss it and occasionally “nurture” its growth. Little did we know, the local community also noticed, watched and cheered as this weed grew. We learned later that this weed was the subject of many home, work place, neighborhood and even school discussions.
As the fall season approached the weed began to take a turn for the worse and appeared to be dying off. Station 2 firefighters, again, “nurtured” the weed back to health. Of course, full details cannot be shared due to HIPAA guidelines — at least that’s the story we’re telling everyone. In November “someone” (the most closely guarded secret of the town) decorated the cone weed with Christmas decorations. Garland, ornaments and LED lights with a timer suddenly appeared over the weekend as the weed took on its next phase of life. Station 2 firefighters could not help but laugh and a picture was quickly posted on department social media — officially assigning the hashtag #ConeWeed.
Thus, began the catalyst of #ConeWeed that kick started the campaign to raise money for local families in need during the holidays. Within days of the anonymous decoration of the weed, a local graphic designer (unsolicited) created a #ConeWeed t-shirt. Quick discussion ensued and we agreed, along with the shirt designer, that ALL proceeds from the shirt sales would benefit HopeMatch (www.hopematch.org). Fortunately, the designer was familiar with that organization and promised a corporate donation match (dollar for dollar) up to $10,000.
Now this is where it starts to get crazy. Almost overnight sales of the shirts took off, residents began visiting the fire station and walking across the street to see #ConeWeed. They left ornaments, decorations and even personal mementos. The day after the shirt sales began, a local country music artist wrote a song titled “The Cone Weed Christmas Song” and media outlets — mainly local newspaper and television — began arriving and conducting interviews. The #ConeWeed phenomenon had taken off. A local resident set up a ConeWeed Facebook page which quickly jumped to over 2,000 likes and shared across the country — even internationally. A few local residents, members of a local elementary school PTO, pledged to help us and become our little “elves.” We welcomed this help.
We worked with our elves and set up an initial fundraising goal of $2,000 to help local residents in need for Christmas, we quickly realized that we were going to raise much more than that. As visitor traffic increased at the fire station, everything was progressing well, residents, local media fell in love with the #ConeWeed and THEN the unthinkable happened — #ConeWeed was gone; it completely disappeared one morning, the cone, weed, ornaments, lights, home-made signs – everything was gone. Witnesses reported a worker in a yellow truck picked up the weed and everything associated with it and placed it into the back of his truck and sped off. As we slowly tried to figure out what happened, angry residents began to arrive at the fire station. Many vowed to find out what happened, and some suggested we file a police report. A local town commissioner reached out to state political leadership to see if they had anything to do with its removal. Angry phone calls poured in and we had to actually go on TV to urge everyone to calm down while we worked to figure out what happened. It didn’t take long, a few hours later; we learned that North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) had removed the #ConeWeed. One of their PIOs called and apologized and admitted to NCDOT removing the weed stating that the worker had no idea what #ConeWeed was. They immediately agreed to return it and #ConeWeed was back in fire department hands within 30 minutes of the phone call. The damage was done and the weed was dead but NOT the spirit of giving. With the help of NCDOT, the on-duty crew at Station 2 quickly set #ConeWeed up again, this time at a safer location off to the side of the fire station.
Here’s the kicker — if we thought the #ConeWeed craze was popular before NCDOT took it away, it was even more popular after. We had segments on Good Morning America, national talk shows, local TV media did video segments daily; they even filmed a couple “Weather at the #ConeWeed segments” for the morning drive. Popularity continued with web posts, newspapers articles and magazines all over the county. National publications picked up the story; including the Washington Post, LA Times, NY Times and various Associated Press publications. Fundraising exploded, over 10 times what we set as a goal.
Fortunately for us the local residents mentioned earlier, our elves, were still by our side and stepped up to help manage all of this. We decided together that we needed to wrap everything up into a final day of giving, to give station 2 a break and a conclusion for the fundraising; so that we could distribute all the funding to those in need in time for the holidays. We set up an event titled #ConeWeedGivesBack for a Sunday, at Station 2 on December 10. We partnered with HopeMatch, local charities and community members for a day of giving and shared it (of course) on social media.
The day of giving was a huge success, we were able to collect over $21,000 for HopeMatch through t-shirt sales, donations and corporate matching. HopeMatch immediately went to work distributing those funds to local families in need, ultimately providing 115 families — including two public safety families — in the region with a full Christmas. We partnered with our local Food Lion and they donated over 400 bags of food, which we packed and transferred to several of our local food pantries. This generous donation, on behalf of their #FoodLionFeeds program provided over 4,000 meals! We collected toys — including bicycles donated by our local Target — hygiene kits, coats, blankets, raised money for the Angels of ‘97 scholarship and more! It turned out to be more successful that we estimated.
As you can imagine, we were on the working end of many #ConeWeed jokes from surrounding agency partners; but in the end, many agreed that what transpired was an amazing experience, for our community and for our department. Now here’s the kicker, we received no professional help or advertising. We used social media entirely, leveraging our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts in order to promote and share this entire story. Following the day of giving, we went back to measure the success of our #ConeWeed social media posts. Bear in mind that we purchased NO advertising, promotions or sponsorships. We performed pure, organic social media posting. What we found was staggering, in just three and one-half weeks we had 888,956 post impressions across 609,065 Twitter accounts. On Facebook, our post was liked over 8,331 times, viewed 412,204 times and shared 1,201 times. Our #ConeWeed hashtag was trending for two of those weeks. We’re still shaking our heads that we were able to take a crazy little weed, in a traffic cone and do good, very good in our community for the Holidays!
Bill Suthard is a firefighter/EMT and Public Information Officer (PIO) for the Huntersville Fire Department. The Huntersville Fire Department is a four-station, combination, fire department covering 62 square miles in northern Mecklenburg County. The department, just north of Charlotte, includes two lakes (Lake Norman and Mountain Island Lake) and serves a population of just over 60,000 residents. The department has over 100 part-time employees and approximately 28 volunteer firefighters. Suthard also works for the Charlotte Fire Department where he is currently assigned as a supervisor within their communications division and helps to manage the division’s public information and Social Media accounts. Suthard is also a member of and the PIO for the Carolina Brotherhood Ride. #CBH17
Bill Suthard is the Public Information Officer (PIO) for the Huntersville Fire Department. The Huntersville Fire Department is a three-station fire department covering 62 square miles in northern Mecklenburg County.