Social Media Landmines
Photographs and journals are important tools in which to capture fire service culture. Stroll through any firehouse and look at its walls. The pictures and memorabilia that hang on them offer us glimpses into the history of our craft, helping preserve and transfer fire service culture to our newest members. It keeps our mission front and center and can be a powerful reminder of the sacrifices that mission demands. However, sometimes when these same pictures are shared externally to the public, often a lack of context compounded by misunderstanding can potentially compromise the public trust, and with it our ability to perform our mission.
During my recent Captain’s process, I was asked to prepare a 15-minute presentation regarding the expectations and policies guiding the use of social media in our fire department. I didn’t have to look very hard to find example after example of what Dave Statter has coined “Social Media Assisted Career Suicide (SMCS). Regardless of rank, gender, ethnicity, or years of service, time after time in each instance a common theme emerged of someone flying hot about either a professional or personal issue, and it ended up costing them a job.
As someone who carries a high profile on Facebook with Embrace the Resistance, I obviously see the value and potential of social media. But, I believe it’s worth exploring whether social media is either providing us a tool in which to leverage our ability to promote the fire department brand to the public and help train its members, or acting as a landmine that should be avoided at all costs.
Reader beware: I’m not an attorney, and this post isn’t about any challenge to our First Amendment rights. Instead, it’s an opinion highlighting how we can embrace social media without putting our foot in our mouths…on our keyboards…wherever you would put a foot in this situation. I make no claims of being an expert either, mostly because I barely qualify as an amateur at times. This is also my opinion, and mine alone. I represent no other person’s thoughts but the one occurring between these ears. So here goes:
The definitions of social media vary but for our purposes let’s go with this one--Anytime your thoughts go on record while utilizing technology. This obviously includes Facebook and Twitter, but it also includes lesser knowns such as private chat rooms, dating websites, and whatever future website or iPhone App some 16-year-old kid thinks of next. There are many professional examples where someone openly exercised their opinion, such as lamenting a hiring or promotional process or even criticizing their own department (stunning I know, you’ll have to just use your imagination). I also often see where someone inadvertently highlighted a poor decision someone made (including themselves) by choosing to document it i.e. a selfie, writing and publishing a text or email. For example, in Russia they fired a paramedic for flipping off patients while taking pictures of them unconscious or even in one instance dying (I’ll circle back to this later).
There are also personal missteps, where a hotly contested election year, or sensitive issue such as abortion or taxes erupted in more than just lost friendships. These types of disagreements and land-mines tend to exist in the areas where we hold strong values--both professional and personal. It’s no surprise people will rally to stand behind a cause they believe in, and as such our values are constantly on display. While admirable, at times the passion that belies these values can trick us into saying something we didn’t truly mean, or would at a minimum say differently or perhaps even not at all if given a second chance.
I’m fortunate that my department has a progressive attitude and policy towards social media. We have an official department Facebook page in which we publish our hiring process announcement, promotions, community events and interactions, smoke detector battery reminders, etc. Also, most of our 20 stations also have a page in which they publish photos and reminders more specific to their geographic area or specialty (such as a technical rescue team, dive-team, etc). We even have a social media team in which select members across all ranks can use social media to positively highlight our department’s efforts. But regardless of whether your department embraces this medium to enhance their public outreach and brand, there are a few expectations that run parallel with common sense. So, you decide…Leverage or Landmine for the Fire Service?
Overwhelmingly the courts have ruled that while the First Amendment protects your free speech from wrongful imprisonment by the government, it will not protect your job security should you choose to exercise it. Typically, the deciding factor in many terminations or suspensions is whether that exercise of free speech impairs or damages the working relationship of the agency with the public. For example, employees tend to get in trouble when they post things that could suggest their opinions represent their employer. Even if it wasn’t the intention, it’s entirely possible (and likely) that the public can jump to conclusions. You see this played out in National News every night across all networks—one group attacking something else another group or person said. As such, your employer may choose to hold you accountable for something that had nothing to do with your work in the first place.
Social media offers us an incredible opportunity to show the public what we do. In my department, even after almost 30 years of doing it, there are still residents of our county that have no idea that our fire department also staffs ambulances. We can enhance our image, and subsequently the value the public bestows upon our services. As such, the more we reconcile the public’s notion of what they think we do, with what we actually do, the better our recruiting, public support, and eventually funding can become.
One of my favorite aspects of social media is that it's connecting the passionate and curious members of the fire service throughout the world. It's not uncommon for me to watch three to five training videos uploaded by guys and gals in fire departments I would otherwise never have heard off. I've also made some incredible friendships and partnerships from simply reaching out to likeminded individuals to congratulate them on choosing to make the fire service better. When we feel resistance locally, there is support available outside our backyard. The guys behind Fit to Fight Fire are a great example of this. They are igniting a passion for fitness nationwide that the fire service has struggled to adopt, despite all of the available and obvious evidence suggesting the need to. And, in addition to fitness, they also promote leadership, tactical proficiency, and basically everything part of a winning formula for your team and department.
You can bet that with almost certainty that if you engage in social media that demonstrates sexually explicit language, images or acts and statements or other forms of speech that ridicule, malign, disparage or otherwise express bias against any race, religions, gender, disability or any protected class of individuals, you can free your calendar for a while. Exercising inflammatory speech in any of these areas is indefensible, and is highly likely to cost you a job. At this point, it’s not an exercise of free speech, it’s representing something that is highly toxic to the public trust. The fire service and its mission want absolutely nothing to do such crap. It never has, and it never will.
If your agency has a policy, then comply with it. If it seems unfair, then work through the proper channels to support a better one. But, until it does those are the ground rules in which to play by. It is what it is. Change begins with you.
As a leader, develop an awareness of each of your team member’s contributions to social media. Whether you are or aren’t Facebook Friends, have an idea of who’s on what, and spend some significant time highlighting the potential negative effects to their careers. Don’t assume they understand the policy, especially when our younger members often lack the common sense that life experience offers us.
To add to that last one, check in on your people! Often disappointment, such as a transfer or promotional process, grief from a terrible call, or frustration with a bad boss can boil over into public forums. I have found that anticipating and seeking out these bad feelings can prevent undue harm, such as career suicide. If you have a hard conversation with an employee, make sure you follow up in a timely manner to give them an opportunity to express any continued frustration to you instead of their 3,000 Facebook friends. Hard feelings are the fuel of keyboards around the world…
It’s worth mentioning here—make sure you are leading in a way that people feel comfortable bringing you their problems. This doesn’t mean you have to be best friends with them, but it does insinuate they respect your ability to help. Remember the Russian Paramedic giving her patients the bird? I can’t help but wonder if personal issues corrupted her professional judgement and performance. Simply put, were there red flags missed that she might have needed help such as an employee assistance program. This is a statistic that the fire service, through the actions of groups such as Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance and Tactical Resiliency Training, are just scratching the surface of. These findings highlight some of the personal and professional demons that haunt the members of the fire service. Don’t miss an opportunity to have a conversation with someone sending warning signs, that you’ll regret not being able to have later.
Author Bio: Benjamin Martin has over sixteen years in public safety and currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He is an international speaker on Leadership, including his entertaining and unique takes on emotional intelligence and organizational culture. His leadership articles have appeared in publications including Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the founder of EmbraceTheResistance.com which features leadership training for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at BMartin@EmbraceTheResistance.com.