Social-media networks continue to grow, with Facebook alone reaching 900 million users. It is used not only by individuals but also businesses and public-safety agencies. On a national level, volunteer organizations like the National Volunteer Fire Council use social media to communicate with the public as part of a larger public-education campaign.

But it’s not as simple as posting a link or a photo; there is strategy involved. There also are pitfalls to avoid, warned NVFC Chairman Phil Stittleburg. He recently shared the association’s social-media strategy with Urgent Communications, including how it set up multiple Facebook pages to reach different audiences; how social-media can be used to communicate during a disaster; and whether a social-media policy should be in place at fire departments.

How does the NVFC use social media to communicate?

The NVFC uses Twitter and Facebook to keep our members and supporters up-to-date on NVFC news and items of interest to fire and emergency services. It is a great way to get messages out immediately, create a network of supporters that can help spread our messages, and connect with our audience on a more personalized and informal basis compared to other mediums. We also can target various audiences with individualized social media pages, as we do on Facebook with the National Junior Firefighter Program and Fire Corps. In addition, we have a blog to get longer messages out than Facebook or Twitter allows, but it still maintains that less formal connection than newsletters or website news articles.

Based on that experience, how can volunteer departments use it?

Volunteer departments can use social media as part of their broader communications plan. Social media is a way to get messages out immediately as well as to a potentially wider audience, because network users reposts and shares messages with their networks. It can be a great tool during an emergency situation, both to let the audience know what is going on and what they should be doing, as well as to get ‘eyes on the ground’ information from those who might be in the area of the emergency.

It also can be valuable after emergencies to let people know what is going on, what to expect, and how to proceed – such as in the case of a weather disaster. You can let people know when it is safe to return and where to go for assistance. In addition, social media is a great way to develop an ongoing relationship with your audience in between emergencies. You can deliver messages to help the community be prepared, keep up-to-date with department initiatives, and stay connected so that when an emergency does strike, your community knows to go to your sites for the information they need.

It is important to remember, though, that social media is one tool in what should be a larger communications and outreach program. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other social media outlets certainly have a place, but should not be the only method of communication between your department and the community.

What are the cons?

Departments have to be careful in how social media is used both on behalf of their department and by their individual members. Once you post a message, you can’t really take it back. If someone posts something inappropriate or reflects badly on the department, it is out there in cyberspace for the world to see. There could be legal ramifications if department personnel post confidential information or make comments that put the integrity of the department in jeopardy.

Should departments have social-media policies?

You need to have policies in place to regulate the content that is posted both through the department’s social media and through your members’ own social media. Have clear consequences for what happens if someone does not comply with the policies and be prepared to follow through. Relay these policies and consequences very clearly to all department members and make sure they understand them. It also is advisable to assign just one or two individuals to manage the social media efforts for the department, and make sure they are clear on what is appropriate and what is not. These individuals will serve as the gate-keepers to ensure the content is up to departmental standards.

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