we need to lead change - a discussion paper on the future of fire comms

We know the landscape is changing. In this bold discussion paper one senior fire communications sets out his personal thoughts over how comms people in the sector should lead a revolution. First published here in it there is food for thought for the rest of the public sector. 

by Steve Chu

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.

 

Radical Reshaping: The Future Of FRS Communications. A discussion paper by Steve Chu

 

Introduction and Background

1. This is a discussion document outlining some personal views about the future of

communications, marketing, and related disciplines within the Fire & Rescue Service

(FRS). They are not necessarily the views of South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue or FirePRO.

 

2. Historically, FRS communications has developed at a local level, with each individual

FRS having its own communications function. Whilst services share information and best

practice through the FirePRO network, there are few examples of joint-working on

communications, other than collective participation in national campaigns such as Fire

Kills (often by using locally-designed initiatives).

 

3. Communications was a growing profession within the FRS during the period around 

 

2004-08, as Services largely had a good level of financial resources and a growing

commitment both to prevention initiatives, and to communicating with local communities.

 

4. From the time of the UK credit crunch and recession, and the subsequent cuts to

spending on public services, it was clear that spending on FRS communications would

decrease. Despite the profession’s proven direct impact on reducing fires, deaths and

injuries, it is not seen as a “frontline” resource. Cuts to back office staff initiated by many

 

FRSs since 2010 have already reduced communication provision to some extent.

Additionally, central Government spending on the Fire Kills campaign has reduced

significantly, although this is one of the few central campaigns which has continued to be

funded at all since the Coalition Government came to power.

 

5. Paradoxically, more difficult times such as the current period of public sector cuts are

often when the importance of effective communications is most relevant – changing

established service delivery arrangements, and staff restructuring, must be

communicated effectively, internally and to the public. If not, the desired changes can be

delayed or not achieved, increasing costs.

 

6. This author has had conversations with FRS colleagues, and some working in other

sectors, about collaboration opportunities for communications, but there has been no

interest in pursuing those discussions further. As FirePRO chair, he did not feel it

possible to initiate a sector-wide debate since it is not possible to establish common

ground across the FRS. Additionally, at practitioner level there is the perception that

sharing arrangements may affect job security more adversely than continuing within a

service-level team.


The Current Financial Environment

7. Government cuts to the English FRS were ‘backloaded’. Some communication positions

were reduced during the initial cuts from 2011-13. It is probable that communication will

be affected to an even greater extent as a result of the cuts announced in December

2012 for the period 2013-15. Additionally, it is now clear that the public funding cuts

programme will continue for at least two more years after 2015, and possibly beyond,

whichever party is in Government.

 

8. In September 2012, the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) published a document,

“Fighting Fires or Firefighting: The Impact of Austerity of English Fire and Rescue

 

Services” which outlined the financial challenges ahead for the English FRS. It

concluded that the impact on the Service will be so significant that “a radical reshaping of

emergency service provision for England” is appropriate. Further, it was argued that this

reshaping should be carried out by the Service itself “before it is done to us”.

 

9. If this picture of radical reshaping could happen for the overall structure of the FRS,

including frontline service delivery, then “back office” functions such as communication,

HR, procurement, ICT and finance will similarly be affected, probably to an even greater

extent, in line with the Government’s expectations of increasing the use of collaboration

and shared services to help to protect the frontline. Within local government, there is

some limited history of communication teams working together, notably the services

provided by Westminster City Council to many other Councils in London and further

afield, through their “Westco” arm.

 

10. If it seems that the FRS will look radically different in 2020, then it is highly likely that

communication functions within the FRS will also change significantly. Two to three

years ago it was almost unthinkable that the privatisation of operational frontline services

would even be genuinely considered; now it is being openly discussed. Alternative

service provision arrangements are even more likely in non-frontline functions. It is

therefore incumbent on communicators within the FRS, who have an intimate knowledge

and understanding of the needs of the Service, to lobby for and deliver the most

appropriate form of radical reshaping of communications within the FRS.


Current FRS Communications Structures

11. A survey carried out by FirePRO in 2011 revealed that whilst there are probably no two

communications teams within the FRS which are exactly alike, there are common

characteristics  which mark out virtually every FRS comms team across the country:

 

 They are organised at individual FRS level, providing professional media

relations and internal communications services, and a wide range of other

services

 Most have a central role in the delivery of a number of related communications

disciplines such as FRS community safety campaigns, publications, design and

print work, events, media training, online communications and consultation

 Some provide services as diverse as member services, translation and ICT

 

12. Whilst no two teams are identical, most carry out many of the activities overleaf:

 

13. This common set-up means there is considerable duplication in FRS communications

 

Media relations services

Marketing

comms services

 

Some other services such as:

 

•Proactive press releases

•Reactive media service

•Media training

•Out of hours duty press officer function (some)

•Strategic comms

•CFS campaigns

•Design and print

•Publications

•Online and social media

•Events

•Consultation and engagement

•Photography

•Audio-visual services

•Public affairs/lobbying provision across the country.

For example, in England there are over 40 media relations teams, many providing their own individual out-of-hours duty press office cover; each FRS has its own website and associated technical structure; CFS campaigns are also duplicated several times, with some FRSs tending to prefer to develop their own posters, leaflets and interventions, often very similar in nature to those which are developed by other FRSs. Whilst sometimes these reflect local priorities, there is a tendency within the FRS (not just in communication functions) to prefer developing local approaches to the same idea, instead of working collaboratively or being seen to take the best of someone else’s idea.


14. In contrast to these duplicated services, a wide range of important communications related

functions are rare or non-existent within the English FRS. This is partly because traditional sector thinking about what a communication service should be delivering is largely based around basic media

relations/internal communication/campaign activity, rather than higher-level communications delivering against organisational aims. Additionally, this more strategic input may be perceived as being too costly to provide for at an individual FRS level.

 

15. In fact, what the FRS desperately needs is to develop a greater ability to deliver the more

strategic elements of communication, which are vital to aligning an FRS’ communications

efforts to the aims of the organisation, such as:

 

 Lobbying and campaign priority setting to maximise income and reduce

failure/costs

 

 Strategic change management communications to minimise the financial and

reputational risks of changing frontline services and staffing arrangements

 

 Targeted marketing and customer relationship management, to ensure CFS work

is more effective, therefore reducing costs on unproductive CFS work

 

 Peer-to-peer level advice to senior officers

 

 Communications performance measurement; research, surveys and evaluation,

to be clear about exactly what FRSs are getting for their communications spend

 

16. When making communication cuts under the current arrangements, FRSs reduce their

capacity to undertake basic communications activity such as media relations, internal communication or delivering community safety messages, without gaining anything in delivering organisational need.

 

17. In summary, if the total communications effort of the English FRS is considered from a

national perspective, there is an over-provision in terms of media relations, CFS

campaigns activity, and a range of other areas, whilst under-providing in what this author

regards as the current strategic communication needs of the FRS.


Radically Reshaping FRS Communications

18. Given the current amount of overall spending on communications by the English FRS, it

 

should be possible to provide all the media relations and CFS campaign services most

FRSs currently enjoy at an individual level; and add some other communication services

which will help  the FRS to achieve what it needs to in terms of public affairs, lobbying,

delivering change, targeted risk reduction and demonstrating its worth - all whilst still

enabling overall savings to be made on FRS communications spending. However, this

would require the English FRS to view communications from a national level (although it

is likely that service would actually be delivered by several collections of multi-FRS

communications teams).

 

19. By removing the duplication of basic activities, it will still be possible to provide a good

level of media relations and marketing/campaigns resources to FRSs, with many

additional benefits to senior officers. These are innumerable, but could include:

 

 Strategic-level communications advice would be affordable for every FRS, either

because individual FRSs could target their comms spending on a strategic-level

practitioner due to savings from pooled tactical resources, or because some

FRSs may choose to share strategic advice

 

 Out-of-hours duty press officer cover can be organised on a multi-FRS basis, as

can resilience for prolonged incidents, contingency situations or business

continuity

 

 A more cohesive and less fragmented, fully-researched and evaluated CFS

campaigns effort, which can demonstrate exactly what it has achieved

 

 Less duplication of some technical developments, such as posters, leaflets,

websites and mobile phone apps, and therefore reduced costs – in fact, a greater

potential to achieve savings through collective procurement in these areas

 

 The ability to better co-ordinate lobbying or national campaigns of wider

importance to the FRS nationally, such as for increased funding/responsibilities,

or sprinklers

 

 The ability to switch capacity for occasional activities such as consultation and

events between FRSs, without the need to retain full-time staff in each individual

discipline at a local level

 

 The ability to undertake research, survey work and evaluation which can be used

by FRSs as evidence to lobby Government, provide reassurance to Authority

members, improve the targeting of prevention and protection initiatives, or

promote support for changes to service delivery arrangements.

 

20. Despite these possibilities, the provision of national FRS communication arrangements is

not deemed to be realistic because it would be impossible to get all FRSs to agree on

their collective needs and individual financial contributions. So what could work?


Options Appraisal

21. Given the situation outlined above, and the certainty that FRS spending on

communication will continue to reduce, there are a limited number of options available

for the reshaping of communication services.

 

22. A number of options have been considered and evaluated in terms of how easy they

might be to achieve, and the extent to which the outcome would deliver both savings and

the communication needs of the FRS. They have been plotted on the table below:

 

 

23. In summary, it is believed that:

 

Outsource to private sector provider

 

 Sharing services outside of the FRS sector will not necessarily deliver large

savings, and may leave the FRS a small ‘voice’ within a larger team – this

phenomenon is already experienced by some County FRSs.

 

 Existing provision or outsourcing to existing service providers is a relatively

expensive option which won’t effectively deliver the FRS’s strategic need

 

 Compulsory sharing of services within the FRS (at a national/regional level) will

be hard to achieve

 

 Groups of FRSs coming together voluntarily to provide communication services

will achieve savings and improve the delivery of strategic communication. There

are different models by which these functions could operate.

 

What Might A Reshaped Service Deliver?

24. One of the key collective failings of communications professionals in the FRS, and in

many other sectors, is the failure to adequately communicate the worth of our profession.

In the FRS, as elsewhere, communicators are often seen mostly as people who write

press releases, make documents look nice, and service the media – all of which could be

rightly argued are dispensable in times of austerity. To some extent, the fire sector’s

traditional emphasis on tactical rather than strategic communication, exacerbates this.

 

25. The lack of adequate communications strategy and outcomes-based performance

measures also mean that communications professionals have little concrete evidence of

what they contribute to an organisation, and therefore senior officers do not know or

understand what they are losing when cutting communications services. Some, such as

South Yorkshire, evaluate all their campaigns against the overall desired outcome of

reducing emergency incidents. However, such evaluations are not as well understood

as ‘traditional’ CFS activities, such as youth engagement, which have a high level of

emotional support within the FRS but may not be as well measured or evaluated.

 

26. A positive outcome of reshaping communications within the FRS would be that in

considering the scope of shared or outsourced services, FRSs would need to clearly

consider and define what the FRS needs from communications, and what it can deliver.

This need then forms the basis of the reshaped service.

 

27. This paper argues that, in a period of austerity, communications services in the FRS

cannot be justified on the traditional ‘press officer’ functions of enhancing/protecting

reputation alone.

 

The key communications needs of the FRS are:

 Maximising revenue and reducing costs – such as by lobbying of central

Government and local Government to increase funding/responsibilities, and

bodies/industries which can contribute to reducing emergencies or other

expenses

 

 Contributing to effective change management, by helping to achieve spending

reductions through changes in service provision or established working

arrangements - by making the case to the public, media and internal stakeholders

 

 Targeted risk reduction to reduce incident demand – through professional and

effective campaigning in conjunction with CFS colleagues

 

 ‘Nice-to-have’ good news stories about the work of local services should,

wherever possible, be used in support of one of the wider communication needs

above

 

28. Because of the way they have evolved, FRS communications teams are currently

“bottom heavy” dealing with ‘traditional’ media enquiries, when the need of the FRS is for

stronger, more strategic communications which is directly tied to the shaping and

delivery of organisations’ overall aims. A reshaped and rebalanced FRS communications

service can achieve this.

 

How Might A Reshaped Service Look?

30. As stated above, a national FRS communications resource is regarded as impossible to

achieve. Any reshaping could only be achieved on an ‘opt-in’ basis, not a compulsory

one. However, it is obvious that the more partners are involved, the better provision

could be.

 

31. This paper argues that some level of sharing communications resources in a mutual

shared service or private consultancy arrangement could both be achieved and provide

significant benefits to the FRS, delivering savings whilst simultaneously adding to the

total national communications effort. However, there are many barriers to such a

development, such as:

 

 At a practitioner level, negotiating with counterparts from other organisations on

this basis is worrying, and an inevitable protectionism occurs

 

 At Principal Officer level, the interest and level of savings achievable is small

compared to the bigger interest and savings through reshaping operational

services. The lack of emphasis on considering strategic communication needs

means the default position is usually to seek cuts at an FRS level

 

 There has historically been a general tendency to try to keep services at an FRS

level. No communications shared services have happened in the FRS yet and

there are no known plans in this respect in the immediate future

 

32. The sooner such sharing arrangements can be implemented, the better the redesign,

because the desired outcome is planned from the start and developed over time, as

people leave organisations. Implementing change later in the process would involve an

element of reacting to various staffing decisions which have already been made by

individual FRSs, possibly compromising the ideal outcome.

 

33. There could be an infinite number of different permutations as to how a reshaped

communications function could develop in the FRS. Two examples are shown below. It is

important to stress that neither of these examples is based on any real-life existing local

FRS structures, and these examples are for indicative purposes only:

 

Example A

A group of three or four FRS communications teams of different sizes come together in a

shared service or private consultancy arrangement. As staff leave over time, numbers can

be rationalised, particularly among media relations officers and campaigns/design officers.

Media relations services can be pooled between the teams, particularly to cover out-of-hours

arrangements, annual leave and sickness. Campaigns and design work can be shared.

Strategic communications advice can be spread between all services involved, benefiting

smaller services which might not otherwise be able to easily access such resources. Over

time, one FRS may become a “press office hub” for the entire group, whilst another FRS

may become a “campaigns hub”. Each FRS would retain key communications staff based

within their HQ to ensure the maintenance of good relationships with key officers.

 

Example B

The arrangements above evolve to encompass a larger group of FRSs. In addition to the

efficiencies achieved through removing the duplication of press office and campaigns

resources, the number of FRSs involved means a central strategic team can be created

using further efficiencies. This could include shared resources such as Public

Affairs/Lobbying, Consultation, Marketing, Communications Performance and

Research/Customer Insight. The expected benefits of these resources for the FRSs involved

(and the FRS nationally) could include:

 

 More effective lobbying, either for more funding/responsibilities or industry change to

reduce community risk

 

 Reduced effort and spending on consultations such as IRMP, to achieve quicker

resolutions

 

 Measurement of key performance indicators such as public understanding of

community safety messages, testing of smoke alarms, and even compliance with

Technical Fire Safety letters – with the expectation that the FRSs communicating

more strategically will be the highest performing

 

 Consequent reduced spending on community safety work (due to better targeting),

technical fire safety inspections (due to better compliance) and emergency response

 

 Overall, the FRS would have a strategic communications resource more

directly aligned to the business and operational needs of the sector

 

Conclusions

34. Reductions in spending on FRS communications are inevitable in the coming years. The

most likely scenario is that these cuts will occur on an FRS-by-FRS basis, leaving some

local FRSs unable even to address their basic communication needs

 

35. There are opportunities to use the current duplication of some FRS communications

activities to reshape services to save money and improve the sum national FRS

communications effort. This would rely on communications being organised on a multiFRS

level.

 

But protectionism and the relatively low priority of communications means that these opportunities

may not be realised

 

36. The redesign needed to achieve savings in FRS communications, whilst also maintaining

and improving the communications services available to the FRS, is mostly likely to

come from communications professionals or teams already working in the FRS leading

new shared services or consultancy arrangements.

 

37. To achieve this end, FRS Principal Officers and communication professionals are

encouraged to quickly instigate and proactively support initiatives to develop

communication sharing arrangements within the FRS, both to achieve savings and

improvements in service delivery. It is not believed that FRSs need to be neighbouring,

or even in close proximity to each other to develop a communications shared service.

Steve Chu is Head of Corporate Communications and Administration at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue since 2007. From 2008-2012, he was chair of FirePRO, the national network of communicators within the Fire and Rescue Service.

Picture credit