the power of integration

Communications planning for the Nottingham University fire where more than 60 firefighters spent the weekend battling a huge blaze started 10 months in advance.

By Bridget Aherne

That's not a glib, insensitive or plain wacky statement but a genuine sentiment that is testament to the hard work of the Corporate Communications team and all staff in the organisation in changing its approach to engaging with the communities they serve.

Of course, we didn't plan for a fire to devastate a £20m iconic building or for our firefighters and officers to spend three days working tirelessly and professionally to stop the fire from spreading to other buildings and put it out - but we have been planning how we will inform people and discuss matters properly with them when the worst does happen.

We are an emergency service that recognises the world we operate in has changed and, as a result, plans we once had in place to warn and inform communities and provide them with safety information during a crisis are changing because the public won't necessarily turn on the radio now, they may well look at Twitter or turn to a trusted local video blogger to find out what is happening near them.

The way to sum this up quickly (and sorry to anyone who knows me because you'll have heard me utter this phrase, annoyingly, hundreds of times before) - you have to be proactive about your reactive communications - and the long-winded explanation of this follows.

Information the public needs at a local level is inextricably linked to what the public might be interested in on a wider scale: customer service and reputation management are now more closely connected than ever before with the lines between the two far less defined than residents speaking to us at a cordon and ITN covering an item on News at Ten.

Marketing and communications has always been a strategic function - Apple didn't design the iPhone first and then figure out whether an audience would buy it and it's the same with public services. The public sector can only work with people by their consent and to fulfil a need whether that's to provide housing or fight a fire. Communicators need to work with managers at all levels and be at the heart of the business or service to help design effective products and services in the first place and then decide which tool to pull out of the communications toolbox (the tactics) and how to use it to help drive the organisation towards achieving whichever business priority.

I've seen the phenomenal Anne Gregory speak on this very matter and put it eloquently: "There's no point putting lipstick on a pig."

Fortunately, the work of the fire and rescue service is far from being a pig - my colleagues do fantastic and often difficult work every day - but we're modest about that, we're used to the traditional media championing our work for us and we're not used to our reputation and the perception of our work being in the hands of the public via social media.

Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service know this and it's something I was asked to work on when I was appointed 10 months ago. We've reviewed how we work, we've trialled new methods of integrating current communications methods with the work our colleagues do and we've done lots - such as putting communications elements into training scenarios, community safety work and even into recruitment processes - just to make sure comms really is at the heart of people's thinking when they begin a project or get the call to an incident.

Similarly to the way firefighters drill for incidents, we've been preparing for what to do in a crisis as well as building the public's trust in us on big online channels by becoming active, social and an authoritative voice with our communities.

On the night of the university fire, all of that worked. Our Control room notified comms early to warn people via Facebook and Twitter and take all the media queries - leaving them to focus on answering 999 calls and mobilising resources - and support the Incident Commander's strategy to keep people safe by using all of those channels to keep the public updated.

Through good internal comms, the external comms worked well: information reached around 900,000 people via Twitter, more than 25,000 on Facebook and NFRS had an authoritative voice in more than 100 news items on the web, which included all of the main media organisations and, most importantly, local people were well-informed, understood the work we were doing to keep them safe and showed their support - which fed back into our internal comms because it firefighters' efforts were recognised and they felt appreciated. Chief Fire Officer John Buckley and Deputy Chief Fire Officer Wayne Bowcock added their voices to those of the public and were able to publicly thank crews via their social media profiles, when previously, they may have had to wait until Monday morning to show their appreciation.

What happened was extremely sad for the university but a lot of hard work went on to stop it from being much worse and there were really important conversations to have about that, which we had and they reassured and supported people including those living nearby, the university community and our own staff. It's interesting to write this after attending #commsforchange14 last week as this is an example of comms that's supporting a changing organisation and world but also a #changeforcomms too.

Bridget Aherne is Head of Corporate Communications and Administration at @NottsFire