By Sandy Gough

We’re profiling Calgary’s inspiring 2018 Gold Quill winners! This week, Gordon Laird from the Calgary Fire Department shares details about their winning project, Building a Culture of Service, which won an Award of Merit in the Internal Communications, Communication Management category.

Can you share an overview of your winning project?

The Calgary Fire Department has a sizeable internal communications program that reaches 1,500 staff (1,300 uniformed firefighters) in over 41 locations across the city. This is a 24-hour business that responds to over 57,000 citizen calls for help each year: keeping everyone connected and informed is critical to Fire operations, particularly these days as firefighters respond to new challenges such as the opioid crisis, wildland fires and growing call volumes.

As an all-hazards emergency service to 1.2 million Calgarians, firefighters are continually learning, training and improving as part of a team that is always on the job.

Not only do we need to keep everyone aligned and give our audience what they need to help people in the community, we need to continually evolve and build the workplace culture. Fire has an extremely strong culture of service: emergency responders are deeply motivated to help others.

An important part of our job as communicators is to help take the best of this culture and build it into something that continues to evolve with the community, and continues to build strong, inclusive teams that can meet any challenge.

Calgary Fire Department communications team, left to right: Public Information Officer Carol Henke; Gordon Laird; Fire Chief Steve Dongworth; Angela Hartley; Jimmy Sadden. Lower: Greg Debicki; Karl Leung. Absent: Ryan Chamberlain; Irina Mazursky.

So, we build communications around this unique business model with the strategy of engaging staff with rich content, leadership messaging, training and awareness-building. There is no master tactic to reach this many semi-wired employees, so we make the most of the channels that we have—face-to-face, web, print, and video—and use available metrics to tweak our approach.

Our main strategy attempts to use our channels in an organic way to draw the audience closer though editorial content, often through journalistic strategies, profiles and storytelling. We need to engage their curiosity and sense of purpose. How do we adapt and become better teams? That’s the underlying ethos.

Calgary’s Fire Chief Steve Dongworth is a talented communicator who hosts Open Lines, our monthly video magazine, which is a mix of fire service news, culture and people. This 10-15 minute monthly show is our anchor tactic, and boasts an audience engagement rate that is generally 10 times that of other employee videos at The City of Calgary. It’s a rare gift to have an effective and well-respected leader who is also great at video, and we make the most of it. Chief Dongworth is our leader and primary client and we’re lucky to have him as an engaged collaborator in the editorial and production process.

The goal was to build audience and engagement and we succeeded in breaking our own viewership records from late 2016 to early 2018, the span measured for the IABC awards submission.

What did you feel most proud of in this project?

Nobody can undertake this kind of program by themselves. I’m most proud of the team I worked with and their commitment to doing great work. Being part of a high-performance team is a big thrill and a rare career opportunity. Our communications team has weathered its own challenges, buoyed by the strong ethic of the fire service and the greater culture of service shared by municipal employees across The City of Calgary.

What was a key challenge you faced with the project?

Time and resources. As municipal employees, we work with limited time and budgets. However, these limitations also help us focus on the fundamentals of communications, the basic stuff: leadership, making the most of face-to-face opportunities, focusing on what really matters and having the tools to roll that out.

Another challenge is our distributed workforce: fire teams are on call 24/7, based in stations in nearly every Calgary community, rotating on four-day shifts. There are no town halls and employees are generally not paid to sit at desks and read email. We need to find new ways to be part of their work life because we are not all physically connected.

What advice can you give to other communicators dealing with your specific objective?

Understand your client’s business. At Fire, we’ve attempted to create editorial-driven solutions that support an unusual business model. Teams and organizations ultimately hang together based on stories—good and bad stories, concerns and victories—it’s a rich environment.

Our goal is to be part of those conversations and to give them access to the Chief. For example: we shoot an unscripted, unedited “Ask the Chief” session at a different fire station every month where firefighters ask Chief Dongworth any question, no editing.

The videos are posted on the website so everyone can see them, and it leverages the power of live journalism with accountability and strong leadership. We continually are attempting to find the power of story for an internal audience that is scattered across a large city.

Why is winning a Gold Quill important to you and your team?

It’s about the team. People have done some great communications work, supported by a fire service that deeply cares about its community. The award is an opportunity to compete globally and winning it is recognition of the importance of our team effort, as well as the importance of tracking and understanding our results.

It’s also great to win a Gold Quill at Calgary Fire for the second year in a row: in 2017, we won Excellence in Government Communications for our annual fire prevention campaign.

Check your smoke alarms everyone, and plan two ways out!

Congratulations to the Calgary Fire Department team! Last but not least, a huge thanks to Gordon for his time responding to our questions.

To learn more about Gold Quill click here.

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