Public Relations

South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service uses data to shape campaigns

The four-person comms team at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue are achieving greater success with their campaigns since adopting the OASIS framework

After 18 months which involved staging a portrait exhibition, launching an employee awards scheme, developing a new corporate narrative and handling the impact of local flooding, it is fair to say that the four-person communications team at South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service is on fire. Proverbially speaking, of course.

But corporate communications manager Alex Mills, who has worked in the service for more than a decade, also believes the team has evolved over the period to ‘take a more rigorous approach to campaigns’.

He says: ‘We focus more stringently on outcomes. There’s nothing that we do as a team that’s awareness raising: everything has a clear outcome and objective.’ Each campaign now follows the OASIS – Objectives, Audience Insight, Strategy, Implementation and Scoring – framework for campaign planning, which is also recommended by the Government Communication Service. From the outset, the OASIS framework demands that questions are answered, says Mills. ‘What is our objective? Who is our audience? What are the best channels? It forces the tactics to come at the end. There’s no We should do a video without setting out what we’re trying to achieve.’

But audience insight also plays a valuable role in informing the strategy behind a campaign. Mills points to the Service’s Find the Time campaign as an example of this in action. After realising that more than half of the 49 people who had died in fires since 2013 were aged over 50 – indeed the majority were aged over 60 – the service decided to launch a campaign that would change behaviours and prevent fires in the homes of those who were potentially vulnerable.

But finding the platform to communicate such a campaign was more troublesome, as this is not typically an audience on social media, for example. Post-incident data revealed many of the victims had some level of social isolation, which meant that bad habits, such as ignoring faulty smoke alarms, went unnoticed.

South Yorkshire Fire service recognised that it was easier to communicate with the friends and families of this potentially vulnerable group, who would ultimately be better placed to change the behaviours of their older relatives. These friends and families were more likely to be active on local Facebook groups, say.

Describing the campaign as a ‘grandparent check’, Find the Time went live on Mother’s Day, a day when most people actively think about their parents. The campaign had three calls to action. The first encouraged friends and families to run through a checklist, answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to nine questions, such as: Do they smoke? Have they experienced any trips or falls recently? Do they have a hearing impairment? If the answer to any question was yes, then it indicated that the neighbour or relative might be at higher risk and could be entitled to a free home safety test.

But, in the meantime, friends and families were encouraged to keep their loved ones safe by testing smoke alarms, decluttering, providing ash trays (if necessary) and also getting a working phone which was readily accessible.

The campaign reached hundreds of thousands of people in South Yorkshire, through paid for advertising and coverage in local media, and led not only to a 43 per cent increase in home safety check referrals from partner agencies, such as Age UK, but also a 41 per cent increase in home safety checks completed in people’s homes. This level of behaviour change might not have happened had the fire service not had the insight that its key audience was not the most obvious one.

‘We’re lucky that we have a lot of data available to us,’ explains Mills. ‘We can map out campaigns from incident data, and we use MOSAIC [Experian’s system which uses geo-demographic data to enable the effective targeting of specific audiences]. It can be quite overwhelming making that data work for you. We can ask who a campaign might be targeted at and the answer is ‘the public’. But you have to really hone down who your audience is.’

Data insight also led to another successful campaign. Electrical fires represent about a third of accidental house fires within the region and the Service set itself a target to reduce this statistic by at least ten per cent between December 2018 and January 2019 compared to the average for the previous three years. MOSAIC analysis revealed that the people most at risk from an accidental house fire fell into four categories, one of which was pet owners who prefer cats, birds and small animals such as rabbits and hamsters.

Having attended 76 house fires in the previous three years where animals were present, and recognising that two in three people would worry most about losing their pet in a house fire, the Service launched a campaign encouraging people to Protect their Pets. They created Creature Comforts-style videos, where pets voiced by local celebrities like former Sheffield Mayor Magid Magid and radio personality Sam Cleasby discussed their owners’ bad habits, such as overloading plug sockets and failing to turn off appliances when not in use.

An online safety quiz subtly gave people safety advice as well as the chance to win prizes, such as tickets to Yorkshire Wildlife Park. They pitched articles to local council and housing association magazines in a bid to reach at risk tenants and displayed posts on local Facebook ‘Buy or Sell’ groups, where people look for electrical equipment at bargain prices.

The three messages focused on not buying cheap, and potentially fake, electrical equipment online, not overloading plug sockets and turning off appliances at night or on leaving the property.

My friends think my mum is reet hard because of her uniform and they shouldn’t mess with her, but she’s actually really sweet

The campaign’s posts on Twitter and Facebook reached more than 325,000 people, while 1,043 people completed the survey with an average score of 77 per cent. More importantly, the campaign resulted in a 30 per cent reduction in electrical fires over the three months. It was another success to add to the Service’s growing roster.

But there was also a monetary impact: the average house fire in Yorkshire costs the service around £47,000 – a reduction of nine fires saves a whopping £423,000. This, in turn, has informed other campaigns and led to a reputation that has allowed the communications team to get more staff buy-in going forward. Mills adds: ‘We’ve taken inspiration from our successes. With every campaign, we find it easier to get people involved with the next one.’

Nowhere was this more true than the video My Firefighting Mum, released for 2018 International Women’s Day, when children were asked questions about their mothers: What silly things she does? What games she is good at playing? The best meal she makes? ‘My friends think my mum is reet hard because of her uniform and they shouldn’t mess with her, but she’s actually really sweet,’ says one, before the ending reveals all their mums are also firefighters.

The video was shared across the Service’s digital channels, but the comms team also made contact with administrators of influential closed groups and pages on Facebook, helping to reach an extra 1,400 people.

Initially, it was hard to get female firefighters to get involved. But when the video generated a double page spread in the local newspaper and led to 59 women registering their interest in becoming a firefighter within two weeks of launch – four times the number of registrations in the two weeks prior to its release – they could see its impact and were keen to participate in future projects.

We can ask who a campaign might be targeted at and the answer is ‘the public’. But you have to really hone down who your audience is

Putting their people front and centre is a huge part of what South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue’s communications team does, whether it’s through a staff recognition scheme – where members of the public shared stories of good work – or showcasing the work of the frontline response team when floods hit the local area. Telling those stories generates pride, job satisfaction and ultimately makes the public safer.

When the River Don broke its banks in early November 2019, flooding parts of Sheffield, Rotherham and Barnsley, the strategy was three-pronged: safety, telling people not to enter flood water; reassurance, explaining what was happening as often as possible on social media platforms and in the local and national media; and praise, thanking frontline staff and highlighting human interest stories.

A Facebook post about Rotherham firefighters who delivered food to a resident trapped by the floods reached more than 300,000 people on that channel alone. The public appreciated the efforts, and the communications team put together a video drawing on their social media comments, which was shared both on internal and external channels.

But ask Mills what campaign he is most proud of, and he cites a photographic exhibition for Black History Month in 2019. After research revealed that younger people can only aspire to be what they can see, the communications team approached members of its BAME staff network, inviting them to have their portrait taken by finance team member Orestes Rix, who is also a fine art photographer.

The exhibition also featured retired colleagues, including South Yorkshire’s first ever black firefighter who joined in 1978. Those featured were asked about their roles, what made them join and their cultural heritage. Pulled together in three weeks, the exhibition launched in a Sheffield gallery before touring local landmarks with the highest footfall, such as the train station and Winter Gardens. An estimated 485,000 people had the opportunity to see the exhibition throughout the month.

‘We’re expected in comms to be good at making videos, at digital, but putting on a fine art photography exhibition is different,’ says Mills. ‘It highlights the range of skills that comms teams can bring and the success of that reflected internally. We’re proud of the impact it had
on recruitment.’

Indeed, 49 people from a BAME background registered their interest in firefighter recruitment following the campaign, an 88 per cent increase compared to the monthly average across July, August and September.

‘We’re always bringing it back to objectives,’ asserts Mills. ‘Why are we doing this? Okay, we want a more diverse workforce, but we have to prove the data can achieve that. We’re always looking for the next thing. We’re always looking for ways to innovate to tackle new problems. It’s important that we stay on trend, particularly online, keeping our content fresh, edgy and different. It’s especially difficult for teams in the public sector but we always try to do things a little differently. We value outcomes over outputs. All that some organisations want to do is show off their vanity metrics, but we’re always trying to show our worth.’

Fortunately, the last 18 months have done just that. Whether it’s reducing fires by up to 30 per cent at a time or boosting potential female recruits by 230 per cent in just two weeks, this is clearly a communications team who are flaming high.