Staying cool under fire

While firefighters battled the large wildfire that broke out in Pigeon Valley, on the outskirts of Richmond in the Tasman District, communications people – including BlacklandPR’s own Joss Debreceny – handled the heat of the public clamour for information.

There was a lot at risk. The fire burned through more than 3000 hectares, including commercial forestry, and destroyed a house. Exceptional work by professional emergency services and hundreds of volunteers protected property and saved lives.

Also being tested was communication with the public. In the Port Hills fire two years ago, a lack of consistent and timely communications left the public thinking the emergency response had failed. Media reported that the public didn’t get the information they needed, that messages were mixed and contradictory, and that officials lacked empathy with those affected.

This time, however, media were kept up-to-date (within the constraints of a rapidly changing environment) and given regular access to spokespeople and frontline firefighters. Social media was used extensively, with consistent messages shared across different channels.

Fire and Emergency NZ worked alongside Civil Defence (which has its own extensive and excellent communications programme), police and other partners. Huge effort was put into informing the community, including face-to-face meetings. National stakeholders were regularly briefed.   Importantly, FENZ used the fire to educate the public about wider fire risks and how people could protect themselves.

After the Port hills fire, FENZ listened, learned and made changes. It invested considerable effort in improving how it communicates, and how it works with other agencies, during an emergency. It changed processes, but also how it thinks about and works with the public. 

There’s a lesson here for public relations. Once the flames have died, a crisis can be an opportunity for change – if you are prepared to learn the lessons.

Disclosure: Joss Debreceny was contracted by FENZ to provide communications support during the Pigeon Valley fire.