In a preview of this month's FIRE Magazine focus on IT & Communications, Greater Manchester FRS Senior Communications Officer Bridget Aherne explains how they used social media to promote fire safety messages to a wider audience: 

Social media is just that - so to become an authoritative presence Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service got sociable.

The service has taken a different approach in the last 12 months and reaped the rewards by taking the time and making the effort to truly communicate with Greater Manchester residents through social media.

Encouragement has come right from the top with Chief Fire Officer Steve McGuirk - who started both an external blog (on the website) and an internal blog (on the staff intranet) - fully behind the move.

Steve said: "At first I wasn't sure that people would engage with me and, to be honest, I was cautious about sharing anything that was too personal or expressing a personal point of view on my blog. But sometimes you just have to dive in." 

The same has gone for other forms of social media - just a year ago, GMFRS had around 1,000 followers on Twitter and a couple of hundred 'likes' on its Facebook page - that number now stands at almost 10,000 and 1,600 respectively.

Steve said: "There's no point pushing messages if people don't know you're there, you have to work on building the audience in the first place. So a different approach was taken. 

"We had to think about what we wanted to get out of social media and which channels were the best ways of achieving it. 

"Twitter may be good for one thing, while Facebook is good for another - you can't take a blanket approach for all social media, you have to tailor you're approach for different forms of media and different types of audiences.

"Twitter has the most immediacy as a social media platform: messages have a limited lifespan so anything needing an immediate response goes there, like incident information.

"For anything with a longer term lifespan, such as photographs, we use Facebook as people will pick them up in their streams for a longer period afterwards."

With incidents, GMFRS tries to get there first on Twitter and be an authoritative voice but, giving credit to those who may live nearby or encounter an incident, they join in with the conversation that others are already having, republish material supplied by others that they know is authentic and encourage followers to contribute.

fbA picture gallery may follow later on Facebook (see left)and, later still, all the material can be drawn together through Storify to create a round-up of the key information for different audiences. 

Storify (see right) is a platform to create social media stories on and can be likened to watching the round-up on the evening news instead of following a story all day on the rolling news.

GMFRS has taken a similar approach to its proactive engagement - taking inspiration from their counterparts at Greater Manchester Police, who said: "don't wait for the streets to burn before you start communicating."gmfrs 

Innovative ways to get people talking about safety messages have been trialled: swapping recipe ideas on Pancake Day; getting Twitter followers to talk about their favourite takeaway as an alternative to cooking; a live Tweetathon from a quiz firefighters ran at residential home to get followers involved in the competition virtually; and starting a debate around the use of shisha pipes while crews were being given a presentation on the dangers, are just some of the successes.

Steve added: "All of the social media activity that has proved hugely popular, built our audience and gained their trust, has had a basis in genuine activity that our firefighters and staff were involved in.

"Just as people wanted to read about what was going on in their town in a newspaper 30 years ago, they want to know about it via social media now. They get the chance to hear from a source they know they can trust but can instantly provide their own views in return and, in most cases, provide something that enhances the discussion.

"There is a risk that it's not to everyone's taste or individuals will be inflammatory but the audience usually becomes self-regulatory and people are very clear on what they find acceptable from us and each other."

Their Pancake Day recipe debate did draw criticism from some followers but many others leapt to the defence of GMFRS by praising the different way the service got people to think about fire safety while cooking.

The result has been a steady growth in the people GMFRS is reaching and engaging with since September 2011.

That growth accelerated between January and March 2012 when GMFRS had to talk to the public about some difficult issues - how they would deliver as effective a fire and rescue service as ever before with less money.

Plans to cope with the predicted £25m budget cut between 2012 and 2015 included controversial elements such as reducing the number of fire engines at a few locations between certain times.

Traditional methods of engagement were used such as stalls on markets and articles in the press but GMFRS saw an opportunity to get its social media community involved through localised videos on YouTube and via Twitter during a number of citizen panels. Senior officers were putting the proposals to the public in three key locations and debating the most sensitive issues that mattered to those communities (see Eccles debate left)eccles.

Staff tweeted the debate live - both sides of the discussion, with brutal honesty - and the response on Twitter was enormous. "It's not an exercise that you can repeat all the time," added Steve. "But, once in a while, when you've got really important matters to discuss with the audience you've built, you can do this with them.

"We repeated it again more recently when we did more citizen panels to ask the public how they wanted us to carry out our prevention work in the future. Twitter erupted with varying opinions, we jammed people's feeds and we got thrown into Twitter Jail because we were re-tweeting that much material.

"Despite virtually spamming people, we actually saw a sudden increase in followers again because we prepared our audience for it and carried it out within strict boundaries."

The service is also branching out to engage with people at a more local level, with a borough level Twitter profile @salfordfireteam proving a growing success in the last year.

GMFRS is now looking at using Google + due to its huge potential and also because it's becoming more popular as it is integrated into the other Google platforms like search and YouTube.

Again, there is a focus on localising content through the Google+ circles, which allows users to share information with a specific audience.

Steve said: "We are going to increase the number of people using social media on behalf of GMFRS starting with twitter borough profiles. To help give staff ideas and inspiration, we have developed a handbook which includes a 'should I reply' flowchart and experiences of staff who are currently using social media.

"Our next plan is to create drop-in sessions and workshops to provide one-to-one training or group networking to support staff every step of the way. It's been a case of trying things out and not everything worked but the audience has grown because we stuck to the basic principle of keeping it social."

Watch GMFRS latest YouTube campaign:

Here's where you can find GMFRS online:
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