Social Media’s Role in Controlling the Narrative Around Public Safety

Sean Carlin

January 22, 2024

After a fire swept through a high-rise building in New York City in January 2022, killing 17 people, including eight children, fire departments and public safety unions across the country used the tragedy as a catalyst to educate their residents about the dangers these fires pose. 

For the Yonkers (New York) Uniformed Fire Officers Association, the fire in the Bronx, along with several large-scale fires of their own, spurred a member and his daughter to put together a plan to reach out to all city residents living in similar structures. They held a press conference and handed out fliers to every resident in more than 7,000 units in the city. But their push on social media was where they really got the community’s attention. 

“Boosting our message via Facebook has gotten the best response,” said PJ Goldfeder, president of the Yonkers Uniformed Fire Officers Association, adding that the push has evolved into a multilingual campaign that’s ongoing. “Within a few short days we were able to positively engage over 14,000 people in our municipality. That was something that we absolutely could not have done a few years ago.”

The campaign in Yonkers is just one of countless examples of public safety agencies and labor organizations harnessing the power of social media to reach their community. Social media has emerged as an immediate source of information dissemination during emergencies. But that outreach can’t begin and end during emergencies when information urgently needs to reach the public. 

Consistent content that follows a developed plan puts public safety organizations on the best course to maintaining a brand of trust with the people they serve, said Jim Aleski, a Cherry Hill, New Jersey, firefighter and former communications director for the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey. 

“Police and fire organizations relied for decades on robust local media to cover their actions and activities, but sadly, in far too many places, these local media organizations are extremely limited in their capabilities – if they even exist at all,” said Aleski, who’s also a content and branding specialist at NEP. “Social media gives public safety professionals tools to put their message out directly to the people they serve.”

Though public safety organizations’ brand of trust can be eroded in an instant, proper planning and messaging has proved to overcome some of the worst public relations disasters. 

As protests grew across the country in summer of 2020, the San Bernardino (California) County District Attorney’s Office saw its social media accounts bombarded with negative comments and direct messages, said Grace Underwood, who worked in the agency’s public affairs division. While the negativity was admittedly intense, Underwood undertook an effort to go in the community, find people who had benefited from their interactions with the district attorney’s office, and share those stories. 

“Slowly, but surely, these positive stories of the good work the DA's office does started to reshape the way the public saw our office,” said Underwood. “From expletive comments essentially saying, ‘I hate the DA’s office,’ the comments turned to, ‘Thank you for all of the work that you do!’”

Underwood noted, however, that their effort was only made possible because the agency’s leaders saw the importance of social media engagement with the community. 

“None of it could have been done without the District Attorney who saw the importance and value of using social media to better connect and communicate with his community,” Underwood said. “Change comes from the head down.”

Sean Carlin is a Content Writer at NEP Services and is a career fire lieutenant for the Cherry Hill (NJ) Fire Department, where he has served since 2016. Prior to his hiring in Cherry Hill, he was a journalist for the New Haven (Conn.) Register and The Associated Press in its Philadelphia bureau. His work has also appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and on the website Sean holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism and political science from Temple University and is a student in the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government.