Essex County Fire and Rescue Services’ Emily Osborne joined the CIPR back in 2013. In the first of a new series of member Q&A’s, she reflects on the impact of the Grenfell Tower disaster on communications, the fragmentation of modern media and much more.
Name: Emily Osborne
Position: Head of Corporate Communications and Marketing
Qualifications: BA, MSc, ICF Accredited Coach, CIPR Chart.PR
Starting salary/salary band: Communication Officers start on Grade SO1 £28,000 – they also get paid to provide an on-call service
As a Fire and Rescue Service based not too far from London, what was the impact of the Grenfell Tower disaster on your work?
We used this truly awful incident as a way to reach our residents and make them safer. This event threw fire into the spotlight, and we saw an increase of 76% in our home safety bookings. This was our call to action on all of our messages. We saw a huge increase in public engagement using our social media channels. We also proactively worked with our local media to help share the narrative and continue the public reassurance messages.
Our priority was to reach our communities and provide public reassurance. My team was amazing: 24,000 leaflets, bespoke animation, radio interviews, television interviews, British sign language safety video, press releases, dedicated webpage, social media adverts, Facebook live: you name it, we did it! And all within in a few days.
Essex firefighters are based at over 50 stations throughout the county – how do you communicate coherently with such a dispersed workforce?
With 75% of our workforce in operational roles, we’ve set up different channels and platforms to reach them and encourage two way conversation. We set up a Daily News site that isn’t networked. It’s a simple wordpress site that allows our colleagues to read and share news stories on their own devices. Because of shift patterns, we also keep “most read” items near the top of the site page. Our Manager Briefing has proven the most popular with our officers. It’s a monthly session, and they can set the agenda. We provide corporate updates, and provide an opportunity for Q&As.
Does public sector communications get the credit it deserves?
If it doesn’t, it should! We are connected by a common social purpose – to reach and engage with our local communities. I think something that makes communications “different” in public sector, is that we care about the communities we serve. Take the brilliant work of Amanda Coleman (Head of Communications at Manchester Police) and Glenn Sebright (Head of Communications at London Fire Brigade) who dealt with the Manchester Attack and Grenfell Tower incidents this year. Their teams were phenomenal. They delivered a first class communication response and service.
What’s your organisation’s relationship with local media like? Is the lack of funding for local media an issue which impacts you?
We have seen a dramatic change in the media landscape. Online news and stories are now serving the weekly print edition. I think the reduction in numbers, as well as the rise of social media news, has seen increased pressure on journalists to churn out stories quicker. We’ve noticed that some of our journalists now use unreliable sources from social media sites and groups to get a story out.
Media drones are capturing images of road traffic collisions and large incidents that we cannot control. Media coverage is changing. Anyone with a smart phone near an incident is a reporter. Journalists are reaching out to social media users and asking to use their images and videos. Fatality announcements are shared ahead of the police reaching families.
But we also have some great journalists and reporters. We’ve worked hard over the last two years to develop relationships and understanding of our Service, and to work with them to help us reach our public and share our corporate messages. We also make sure that we provide timely and factual updates as soon as we can on our social media channels and incident log on our website. This includes photos and videos statements from our Officer in Charge.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your role?
I joined the Service two years ago. We’ve had a cultural review which labelled the organisation as “toxic and corrosive”, a huge change programme, the Chief Fire Officer was dismissed, and we’re now about to become the first fire service in the UK to come under Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) governance. But these challenges have provided the most brilliant opportunities. Our corporate communications team has absolutely stepped up to change! Last year we led the most engaged public consultation for a fire service in England, we’ve developed channels to have conversations with all our employees, and we’re engaging more and more with our local communities.
What’s next for you?
I live in Essex, and l’m proud to work for Essex fire service. This has been my first public sector role, and I’ll be surprised if I have gone back to commercial.
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