Friday, 17 May 2013

Is it worth it? Measuring and evaluating FRS communication

For years I’ve been trying to find an easily understandable way to demonstrate the value of my Fire Authority’s spending on corporate communication. As I said in my last blog, in South Yorkshire, we’ve always evaluated the impact of our community fire safety (CFS) campaigns, and have constantly refined this to a good level now. We believe we can make a case for the impact our work with our colleagues in CFS has on reducing emergency incidents, some of which we showcased in our “Community Safety In Numbers” publication.
What has proven elusive is a way to measure the impact of the rest of our work, from media relations to our website; from social media to internal communication. We’re not there yet but, heavily influenced by Westminster Council’s excellent publication: “Evaluating Your Communication Tools”, we’ve made a start.
For the last two years in South Yorkshire, our main media relations performance target has revolved around “the percentage of media stories which include a community safety message.” In that time, our research tells us that the percentage of our population who can recall seeing a media story about us has significantly increased. I hope and believe this is linked. The performance measure has certainly provided focus to what our media relations work is there to achieve.
Our surveys over the past two years also tell us that whilst satisfaction with our emergency response service has slightly declined, the overall reputation of our organisation has improved. It’s far too early to tell whether there is any significance in these trends, or whether communicating effectively has helped our reputation score to hold up, but it’s something we’ll keep an eye on.
Westminster’s document has also helped us to start to evaluate our website, e-newsletter, social media and internal newsletter – these are all vital as we move towards more direct communication with the public, and put more emphasis on internal communication through the cuts. We’ve pulled our 2012/13 evaluation together in one short report. It’s interesting to us, gives us a clear picture of what is working and what isn’t, and goes some way towards showing the outcomes of our day-to-day work. It’s more tangible and scientific performance measurement for communication, which we haven’t been good at as a profession.
It’s something that we need to do better throughout the Fire Service, to provide clear evidence of what we’re achieving, and what may be lost in austerity cuts. I heard that one FRS boasts of cutting communications spending to just £12,000 by outsourcing it to an agency. But without a clear understanding of the role of communication in the FRS, and a way to evaluate its achievements, who knows whether £12,000 is too much to pay, or £500,000 not enough? We believe we can show the savings to society from our CFS campaigns in South Yorkshire alone run into the millions.
I’m convinced that driving ourselves to improve the proportion of media stories with a community safety message is improving public safety; now we’re turning our attention to researching the specific issue of smoke alarm testing because, more than smoke alarm ownership, this is a pure communication measure that will save lives. I’d love to be able to benchmark measures like this against other Fire Services; I’d be prepared to bet that the better-measured and more outcome-focused an FRS communications effort, the better it achieves desired behaviour change. I’d also be interested to know of any other ways Fire Services measure their communications work for its impact on community safety.
Finally on this topic, it’s worth considering the impact of the national Government Fire Kills campaign which, as with all Government campaigns now, is under constant review. The Fire Kills team regularly evaluate the impact of their key campaign periods, and the results are usually favourable – but it’s only carried out on a national basis. What I’d really like to see for 2013/14 is some evaluation which compares the impact in different FRS areas. Are smoke alarm testing rates pretty consistent nationwide? Or does local FRS support for the national message improve these figures during the campaign period? Is smoke alarm testing lower outside of the national campaign period, or does the message stick? And does a testing message put out only by a local FRS at a different time of the year work as well, and as cost effectively, as the national campaign? I’d love to find out.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Beyond Reputation: The Communicators’ Role In The FRS

Communication professionals in public services are basically spin doctors, employed primarily to manage their organisation’s reputation – right? Wrong.
In 2005 the Local Government Association and LGcomms published the Reputation guide, a checklist of things Councils could do to improve their reputation. The New Reputation guide followed in 2010. They clearly articulated a purpose for communicators in local government – to improve public satisfaction with Council services. I was never convinced that approach entirely fitted the Fire Service. In an era of austerity, I know it doesn’t. I don’t believe that public service communicators can justify their role solely on the grounds of reputation. We know that the public would rather see their money go on nurses, teachers and firefighters.
So what is a communicator’s role in the Fire Service? Could any of us articulate it in one sentence? Recently in the fire trade press, a private contractor seemed to suggest that communications functions could be outsourced to a call centre-type outfit, answering journalists’ calls. Suggestions like that fundamentally misunderstand what I believe our clear role in the Fire Service is.
It is beyond reputation. Communicators in today’s public services must show how they directly contribute to achieving overall organisational aims, whether by making services better, reducing demand, or changing public behaviour. In today’s Fire Service, that means proving our direct impact on reducing emergency incidents, improving prevention and protection, or helping to achieve change.
In South Yorkshire, I’d say 75-80% of our team’s role is community fire safety. Most of the rest is change management, or internal communication. At the same time, we maximise our reputation wherever possible, systematically measuring and evaluating our effectiveness along the way; but I can’t justify a penny of my Authority’s spending on communication for reputation alone. Firefighters drive a fire service’s reputation. Our role must be about community safety.
My South Yorkshire colleague, Alex Mills, has worked closely with our Community Fire Safety team to develop a range of successful and innovative campaigns which are proven to reduce emergency incidents, and have paid for themselves many times over in savings to society. We’ve published our ‘greatest hits’, which outlines some of this work. It’s called “Community Safety In Numbers”, because we’ve rigorously evaluated the impact of our work.
The Fire Service and the public have an inherent goodwill towards “traditional” community safety, such as school visits, youth engagement courses, and fitting smoke alarms – going out and doing stuff. Millions of pounds are spent on these activities every year nationwide, and some of them are clearly working in reducing emergency incidents. But which ones work? Which are the millions well spent, and which don't actually reduce risk? Whether these initiatives are properly evaluated or not, they’re “Community Safety” and people have an instinctive emotional support for them.
Far from the millions spent on “traditional” community safety, I agonise over spending £5,000 on a safety campaign that I know I will evaluate as to its effectiveness. I wonder if Fire Service communicators would be viewed differently by the public if we were instead called “Community Safety Mass Education Officers”, or something similar?
As it is, we will never have the luxury of inherent goodwill. If we can’t win hearts, we must win minds. We must clearly identify our role in contributing intelligently and cost-effectively to FRS’ overall community safety effort, and show how our work can be clearly measured. Aside from the campaign evaluation that we practise in South Yorkshire, in my next blog, I’ll outline how we can measure our day-to-day effectiveness to illustrate the value of communication.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

We Need To Lead Change

Today I’m publishing a discussion paper on the future of corporate communications in the English Fire and Rescue Service (FRS). I’m saying we need to achieve more with less. I’m saying that we need to find a more efficient model than the historic structure of over 40 press offices at individual FRS level. I’m saying that, as communicators, we need to prove our worth to the FRS beyond doubt. I’m saying that we, and the Service need to clearly set out what we should be aiming to achieve, and how that should be evaluated.

This is a discussion paper I couldn't publish when I was FirePRO chair, when I spoke for us all. Today, I make it clear I’m speaking for myself. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. But I hope to provoke a debate in which we can all have our say, because I passionately believe that effective communication is needed more than ever by a changing fire service. The FRS needs to fully engage with its staff and the public about why change is needed, and how it will affect them. Without that two-way dialogue, the change that has to happen will be more costly, and take longer to achieve. And, as money gets tighter, the need for smarter, much more cost-effective community safety will grow. We need to show that the way to reduce demand in that elusive hardest to reach audience, at minimal cost, is through highly-targeted marketing and communication.

As well as saying what is wrong, my discussion paper also suggests a new communication structure for the Service. One that costs less but achieves more. It would reduce the duplication of technical aspects of communication, which are currently replicated 40 times over in the English FRS. It opens the door to new, strategic communication specialisms which are largely lacking in our Service, but so desperately needed, now more than ever. It requires us to be brave, to recognise that we need to get serious about shared services. We need a clear vision about what communication in the FRS is here to achieve. And we need to champion clear performance measures which demonstrate to Authority members and senior officers exactly what they get for every pound spent on communication.

We can do it; we must do it. Send me your feedback. Talk about the issues with your counterparts in FRS comms, and with your senior officers. Disagree with me if you like – and if you can put an alternative vision forward. But I don’t believe that in five years’ time we will still have over 40 in-house corporate communication teams in the English FRS. So let’s now lead the debate about what we should have instead.

Over the coming week, I’ll be publishing a few more “Thought Leader” articles. I’ll set out my thoughts on:

· The role of communication in the Fire and Rescue Service

· How it should be measured and evaluated, and

· Innovations in cost-effective community safety

Let’s not sit back and wait to see what post-austerity FRS communication looks like. Let’s use the challenge of declining resources as a catalyst to lead the debate about what we’re here for, and how we’re going to achieve it.

We’re communicators – let’s get talking.