Social media: are you doing it all wrong?


By now, I expect many of you to have established and implemented a social media policy in your department. You might consider yourself proficient in account management. You might even call yourself a social media expert.

I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but you may be wrong, especially when it comes to two broad categories of mistakes firefighters make when it comes to social media.

You don’t understand your audience

Understanding your audience involves knowing who they understand, what these people want, why they want it, and how often they want it.

If your social media accounts are nothing more than “dig me” pages that have little or no content beyond the incidents the service responds to, you are making a huge mistake. Department members are not your audience; the community is. Yes, ministry employees can keep track of accounts, and yes, it’s important for those the ministry serves to see members doing what they do best, but when it comes to “the public needs to know what what we do”, believe me when I tell you, they get it. Fighting fires is the only thing they do know that the ministry does. It is in the name of your department and in the job title of those who work for the department.

What the public doesn’t know are all the other things the department and its members do. This should be the majority of your messaging because when council members/board members/advisors call and taxpayer dollars are at stake, those people will want to know how the department is serving the community beyond firefighting.

About the incidents the department responds to: With few exceptions, “ordinary” fires are generally not the bread and butter of a department. Also, if you look at the analytics, you might find that posts on these answers get the least engagement. The fires you do may be cool for you/members and may be a way to show off to family and other firefighters, but they are usually not friendly to the public.

Taxpayers do not want to see someone else’s life destroyed. It’s sad and depressing, and you’ll know it by the number of comments that indicate it and/or the sad face emojis that get picked on these types of posts. Would you want the remains of your life (or that of your parents/brothers/sisters/children) exposed in cyberspace for all to see because the firefighters who worked on this event thought the call was ” cool ” ? Moreover, the comments that follow after the publication of such an incident are usually not those that those affected find appropriate or sympathetic, given the loss they suffer.

So, put yourself in the shoes of the majority of those who follow the social networks of the department. Look at things from the perspective of the public, or better yet, the victim, not a firefighter’s perspective.

The data behind the messages

Each social media platform contains insights and tracking information, allowing you to measure how well (or not) each post is performing. It’s one of the easiest ways to track trends to see what content is getting the most reach, engagement, and impressions.

If you don’t know how to find this information, how to interpret it, or even what the words mean, find someone who does. Understanding the data is essential to adjusting your posts, so that you continue to increase the number of subscribers to the service and, therefore, increase the virality of your posts.

You’re probably not listening to your subject matter experts either. In many departments, a group or individual is responsible for departmental accounts. Assuming they are following best practices, don’t meddle.

At this point, your personal Facebook page or Instagram account doesn’t make you an expert – and if you don’t have social media, the ‘keep out’ point is particularly important. If you want to know why the group/individual posted specific information, ask for the post performance data and analytics and let them share why they did (or didn’t) post certain things. These people have spent a lot of time – years, in some cases – learning the ins and outs of social media, which is an ever-changing monster.

If you don’t have the same expertise and experience as them, respect this space. Suggestions and ideas are always worthwhile, but don’t tell the group/individual how to do the job, especially if you don’t know their job.

Perhaps one of the biggest components of this error is frequency: you are not maintaining an active presence. Social media is a constant conversation. If you create accounts but don’t use them, department subscribers will wonder, “What’s the point?” and that’s what you should be asking yourself too. If you don’t interact with department subscribers on a regular basis (daily, at a minimum), you shouldn’t expect them to pay attention when the department has something really important to say, such as when a emergency occurs and that it shares instructions that citizens must follow.

Too little attention, too much attention

Not caring enough – or caring too much – is the other big mistake I see made again and again…and again.

The constant conversation mentioned above is not the only way to communicate with subscribers of the department.

When followers ask a (legitimate) question, answer.

When followers post a compliment, thank them. In most cases, it’s as simple as hitting the “Like” button.

However, you can worry too much about it: you don’t “let go”. Are there trolls making toxic comments and/or asking devious questions that they don’t really want answered? Sure. That said, in almost all cases, the other followers in the department will handle it for you. As Taylor Swift sang, “Haters Gonna Hate.” You have to make peace with the fact that you’re never going to make everyone happy. Engaging with those who aren’t is a losing battle that you can’t win, and it could land you in trouble. So don’t even try.

Where are you going from here?

If you are now panicked, because you realize that you have done everything wrong, do not be afraid; all is not lost! As the saying goes, knowing is half the battle. Fixing it is the other half.

Fortunately, the solution is simple: do the opposite of what I’ve described here. Change the ‘don’ts’ to ‘dos’. You will be well on your way to having a successful social media strategy that will be the envy of peer departments.

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