Can Leaders Drive Social Media Into An Entire Profession? The NFPA Should Be Lauded For Trying.

Photo of NFPA Booklet

I walked into the Boston Convention Center last week for the NFPA National Conference – the largest gathering of who’s who of fire officials in the country – and grabbed the guide booklet and there it was, staring right at me. A QR Code.

As I wandered over to the directional sign looking for directions to the speaker’s registration booth, something else caught my attention. It was the conference hashtag - #nfpaconf in big bold letters. The tag was on all of the signage.

As one of the conference staff tapped my information into the computer, she asked me “do you follow NFPA on Twitter or Facebook?” I sure do, I replied. She handed me a little yellow ribbon to attach to my conference badge – “I Follow NFPA,” it read.

Surprised and excited by all this social media around me – after all, I was there to give a talk about using social media for fire safety education – I opened the Twitter app on my iPhone, tapped in a search for “#nfpa.”

As I wandered through hundreds and hundreds of attendees veering toward one of the 130 sessions held during the 4-day event, I was hit with the biggest surprise of the day. There had been maybe 8 or 10 tweets total all morning. Total. That’s it. And over the entire four days, there were just 100 tweets using the hashtag – or about one tweet every hour.

Know Your Audience

As a communications professional, my first reaction was the NFPA must have done a poor job of researching their audience. Why put so much emphasis on an engagement strategy and tactics that clearly weren’t working. But as I watched the conference room for the social media presentation I was participating in quickly fill up, I wondered whether the strategy was to educate rather than engage. Was the goal to increase awareness of social media tools and not to create a sub-channel for engagement for the conference?

Among communicators and Open Government advocates, there is no shortage of posts, white papers and even best-selling books about the importance of culture change to drive innovation and transparency within an agency. But can a leader in a certain industry or profession – in this case fire prevention – help nudge an entire industry by exposing them to the tools and jargon and lead by example? NFPA has an extensive social media footprint with multiple blogs, twitter handles, YouTube and Facebook pages for the organization and individual fire safety campaigns.

Risk vs. Reward

Did having a few extra “I Follow NFPA” ribbons break the bank? Probably not. Did adding a few extra words to the posters and banners or putting QR Codes on their booklets cost a ton of money? Probably very little. While there are several examples of local and state fire departments using social media effectively, industry leaders openly admitted they are extremely conservative and have been slow to adapt.

Yet, if the NFPA – a recognized industry leader – can showcase the impact social media can have on fire safety education efforts to local fire leaders, it could certainly lead to some sparks being ignited when they get home.

The risks of promoting social media were very little, but the rewards – while not immediate – could be significant as fire departments use these rapidly maturing tools to reach new and diverse audiences they may have never touched before and hopefully save lives.

Like the NFPA, many federal agencies do not directly interact with citizens on a large scale but do influence professions and industries.  Can the federal government lead by example and help increase citizen engagement of the state and local level with their industries? Should they? Have you seen any examples for where federal government has pushed social media to generally hesitant groups?