Posted by Phil Hall
Thou Shalt Not Emulate a Certain Connecticut Volunteer Fire Department
A few weeks ago, you may recall that I was having little success in joining the staff of the volunteer EMS and fire departments in my neighborhood along the Connecticut shoreline. Well, last Tuesday I was sworn in as a member of a local volunteer fire department. Four days later, I quit the department in disgust.
Looking back at that brief and disastrous incident, I can see a great many cogent lessons that can be applied to the PR world. Pay attention, because you could wind up accidentally setting your own fires if you follow the mistakes I encountered.
1. First impressions are too crucial for words. In PR, as in life, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And my impression of that nutty volunteer fire department was quite an eye-opener: the monthly membership meeting. It was not a civil function, by any stretch. It was a chaotic, disorganized mess where everyone was speaking at once, where the leadership of the department was openly ridiculed with vituperative taunts, where one semblance of kindness (a letter from a resident praising the department) was subject to ridicule by the firefighters, and where the one truly serious problem facing the department (a considerable amount of debt owed to various sources) went unanswered.
My impression of this meeting: these guys are a bunch of assholes! And, for those who keep sociological tabs, they were a bunch of white guys – a wildly lopsided demographic reflection of the community they were supposedly serving.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again: HR is a sibling of PR. If your corporate culture is a disaster, word will spread and wreck your public image.
2. If you promise information to someone, deliver it. During the meeting, two members of the department (including the “public information officer,” a guy named Mike) promised to get me the contact data for the Firefighter One training I would need in order to be an active member and participate in emergency calls. I never received the information and I wound up spending two days making repeated phone calls in an attempt to track down where in the state I could receive such training. (I think it would be easier to locate Amelia Earhart than find the nearest Firefighter One class.)
This boo-boo is actually fairly common with PR people. The only silver lining here is the fact that it is not unique to PR people – even firefighters don’t deliver promised information.
3. Don’t make statements that are not correct. One of the directors of the department told me that firefighters were “all brothers.” Yeah, right.
That volunteer department shared a house with the town’s paid department. The next time I came to visit, Mike the public information officer wanted to introduce me to one of the paid firefighters. The salaried man walked past me with no interest, and Mike called after him: “Hey, aren’t you going to shake hands with him?” He didn’t want to press my palm, and Mike sheepishly acknowledged that the paid firefighters didn’t really like the volunteers. Some brotherhood.
Again, I was told one thing and discovered something else. That’s poor coordination and bad PR.
4. If food is involved, make sure everyone is served. After that non-handshake incident, Mike and another firefighter named John decided to go out on a “truck run.” I couldn’t join them on the fire truck, as I lacked certification, so Mike suggested that I wait for them in the firehouse until they returned. Fifty minutes later, the fire truck came back and Mike and John entered with a large white plastic bag.
“Do you like sushi?” Mike asked me. I said I did, and then Mike frowned slightly. “Oh. We realized after we left that we should’ve asked if you wanted any.”
Yes, it seems Mike and John got themselves dinner and didn’t think about me. Mike offered me four California rolls from his meal (about one-twentieth of the plate), but I declined.
PR lesson: If you are doing any event regarding food, always have more than enough. Don’t worry about leftovers – that’s why we have doggie bags and refrigerators. And always ask in advance regarding dietary restrictions (vegetarians, vegan, kosher, halal, finicky, etc.).
While Mike and John were stuffing themselves with sushi, I left the firehouse, went home, and e-mailed a resignation to the department leaders. Which leads me to the next point:
5. Always respond to complaints. I contacted the department’s chief, deputy chief and president about my concerns and poor treatment. No one responded. That’s the ultimate in bad PR. Ignoring complaints will not make them go away. It also reinforces a horrid reputation of insincerity or arrogance. And in this case, it leads to the last point:
6. Never piss off people in the media. If I was Joe Shmoe from the factory, no one would know this story. But here I am, a columnist on Strumpette, talking about what happened to me at this particular volunteer fire department. And thanks to search engine technology, anyone can and will find this story.
Oh... you may wonder what the name of this department might be. I won’t be vindictive and identify it by name.
As for the PR people here, learn the ultimate lesson from the dum-dums at this volunteer fire department: if you treat people like excrement, your reputation will be flushed away faster than you can yell “Fire!”
(Phil Hall is the former president of Open City Communications, a New York PR agency, and former editor of PR News. His new book, "The New PR: An Insider's Guide to Changing the Face of Public Relations," is now available on Amazon.
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... my Friend , I took this lesson very seriusly ...
I would agree ...
Never piss off people in the media, especially well established and highly respected World Wide like our Ex - Volunteer ...
How many people could give a lot to shake your hand Phil and say thanks for being such a great journalist and hero for this Country , but it was not enough to shake your hand by payed Firefighter ... they really need to change their lifes and point of views .
Kind regards ,
Leszek Drozd / CEO
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