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As the Great British Bake Off returns to our screens, and 12 new contestants enter the tent to face Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood, CorpComms Magazine catches up with Rob McTaggart, senior communications officer at London Fire Brigade, who used social media to amplify safety messages and show support for fire fighter Mat Riley when he was a contestant two years ago.

The London Fire Brigade became aware of Greenwich-based fire fighter Mat Riley’s involvement in the Great British Bake Off several weeks before the first shows aired after the BBC, then home to the show, made contact for permission to film and photograph him at work. Every fire engine carries a safety message, and the one that Riley posed beside fortuitously said Never leave cooking unattended.

‘We saw it as a great opportunity to hammer home safety messages,’ explains senior communications officer Rob McTaggart. ‘About 60 per cent of fires start in the kitchen, and we tried to push out safety messages that matched our objective of reducing cooking fires.’ Luckily, kitchen fires do not generally turn into fatal ones but the London Fire Brigade is regularly called to deal with events as a result of untended cooking.

But while McTaggart was aware that Riley was involved, he (and his colleagues) were unaware how far he had got in the competition or what each episode might reveal. ‘You try to have as much content on hand as possible,’ he explains. ‘I had an idea about what they might be cooking that week, and so I tried to develop some tenuous links to our safety messages in advance. You have to be quick. It is all happening in real time. You can’t send a tweet out five minutes after something has happened on the screen.’

In his first week, Riley added seven shots of gin to his Madeira bake. ‘I didn’t know he was going to do that until I saw him on screen, but it allowed me to use stats on drinking and cooking, which I had to hand,’ explains McTaggart. ‘Once you see something on screen, you have to quickly respond.’

The London Fire Brigade was fortunate that Riley was seen as a character. ‘Mat is brilliant. He put himself forward for the show and was willing to do some PR for us. He is a fantastic representative of the London Fire Brigade and gave us massive exposure: Bake Off was viewed by 15 million people,’ adds McTaggart. ‘We could also have fun with the tweets, as that’s the nature of the show. There’s lots of innuendo, and Mat was part of that. We know that people are tweeting as they watch the show, so we became part of that too.’

The brigade created a Twibbon, incorporating Riley’s image, and invited followers of #teammat to use this. ‘It all happened organically,’ says McTaggart. ‘We have a large following, but other people latched on when we mentioned fire fighter.’ Other brigades also tweeted their support . In total, #teammat tweets generated 870,000 impressions with a 3.7 per cent engagement rate. Regularly using the term 'fire fighter' was also a deliberate strategy as the Brigade is trying to shake off the outmoded (and sexist) fire man term.

After each episode, until Riley’s departure in week seven, just a week after winning Star Baker, the brigade would update his Bake Off story on its website, ending each write up with a safety message, such as ‘sound the smoke alarms in celebration’ or ‘get a takeaway rather than cook drunk’. And ten minutes before each show, @LondonFire, which now has 186,000 followers, would tweet an alert advising people to make a cup of tea and check their smoke alarms on the way. ‘If we can influence behavioural change in any way, then we are having a small impact,’ says McTaggart.