Using Social Media to Reach Your Community
by Rich Palmer
In my last article I pointed out the emerging use of social media as a communications tool
for organizations, government agencies, and other professional venues. Since that article
was published even more services have appeared and even more potential exists for the
end user to filter their messages, deliver targeted information, and to become more
efficient in the communications approach. In this article I’m going to share a few of the
success stories and potential best practices that might be used by organizations such as
I would be completely off-the-mark if I did not highlight the activities of the Los Angeles
Fire Department. This agency has the most dynamic social media and Web 2.0 presence
of any public safety agency that I’ve seen. The force behind this campaign is Brian
Humphrey, a 23-year-veteran of the LAFD. Humphrey is using many approaches to
ensure that the agency’s message is delivered – and received – by the citizens of the
community (and world).
The LAFD Twitter account (twitter.com/lafd) shares updates on current responses by the
department. It lets people know the severity of the current situation and provides updates
to incidents. Twitter messages have included calls as routine to a fire department as
motor vehicle crashes and the ambulance response to large structure fire incidents.
During the large 800-acre fire in Griffith Park in 2007, Humphrey was able to use Twitter
to get real-time updates on wind direction and flare-ups by other “Twitterers”. He could
then relay that information to the crews and commanders fighting the fires.
Twitter is not the only service that provides updates, current safety information, and
highlighted topics to the community served by the LAFD. The agency’s blog
(lafd.blogspot.com) provides news about the fire department, human interest stories, and
entertaining articles about the community. On the site one can also find updates on
product safety, product recalls, and recaps of stories that have been covered by
mainstream media about the LAFD. Videos produced by the department – or by others
that have captured their activities – can be found on their YouTube channel. That
channel is also available on their blog page. And, their blog page is a great one-stop-shop
as it also provides news and updates about fires and emergency medical services around
the world. Persons interested in these topics are likely to use the LAFD site as a primary
access point or portal. This ensures that web traffic will continue to build at the site.
Since early in 2006, Humphrey and the LAFD have used BlogTalkRadio
(blogtalkradio.com/lafd) to reach out to the community with live online radio broadcasts.
They talk about the fire service, the LAFD in particular, and they help build positive
relationships between the fire fighters and the community that they serve. In December
2007, Humphrey and fellow spokesperson Ron Myers hosted a program called “The
Twelve Minutes of Christmas”. Persons had the opportunity to participate in the live
show and to ask questions about seasonal safety concerns.
Another agency that is using social media is the Scottsdale Police Department. Mark
Clark, PIO for the agency, has been exploring Twitter and other services to share updates
about the department (twitter.com/scottsdalepd). This is a great stepping off point for
area media to determine if current calls are worth following for potential stories. It also
gives the members of the community an opportunity to see the police department in
action. It gives them a (sometime) real-time perspective of what is happening in the
The Fairfax County, Virginia Health and Safety Podcast
(www.fairfaxcounty.gov/podcasts) presents a variety of safety and community topics.
Recent shows have featured subjects such as the auxiliary police project, winter weather
safety, vehicle collisions with deer, a special needs registry, and even food handling
safety. Podcasts such as this provide quick tips, can be relatively easy to record, and are
I asked this in the last column – and it warrants asking again -- Can you use services like
these to help ensure that your message is direct and “official?” Social media may not be
appropriate for every agency – or not every social media service fits – but it certainly
may be a way for many to reach the audiences that are engaging in this content. These
audiences are growing exponentially. If it fits your culture and “organizational DNA”
then explore social media and build upon it!
If you would like to learn more about social media and other tools and techniques that
can help you be a better spokesperson for your agency, I invite you to consider
membership in the National Information Officers Association (NIOA).
The NIOA is an organization dedicated to public information professionals from local,
county, state and federal public safety agencies, health departments, medical transport
companies, hospitals and other government agencies and organizations that are involved
in public safety and emergency response.
The NIOA hosts an excellent training conference each year. The conference gives
members the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business and perhaps more
important, network with colleagues and peers close-by, across the country – or in some
cases – around the world.
The annual training conference is tailored specifically to the needs of public information
officers in the fields of emergency services and government front-line spokespersons.
Our topics of discussion revolve around current events, many involving large-scale media
coverage from the past year. In 2008, our conference featured speakers who were key
communicators during events such as the 35W Bridge collapse in Minnesota and the
Imperial Sugar Refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia. These information officers shared
the need for preparation, having the right tools readily available, and coordinating
information among multiple agencies. They shared unique experiences, best practices and
‘lessons learned’ with conference attendees.
The NIOA also provides professional development opportunities to help members
sharpen their skills. Recent presentations have included how to connect with viewers
during an interview, how to build trust, how to mentor other communicators, and how to
identify new trends to help improve your communications efforts. Each year the NIOA
offers a basic and advanced PIO class at the annual training conference, as well. This
training is free of charge to those that attend the conference.
For more information about the NIOA conference, about joining the association or about
what we do, please visit our site at nioa.org.
Rich Palmer is the current president of the National Information Officers Association
(nioa.org). He is the Public Information Officer for the Washington Township Fire
Department in Montgomery County, Ohio. Find him as “richpalmer” on Twitter,
Utterli, Facebook, and many other social network services.