London Fire Brigade engages public with risqué social media campaign

London Fire Brigade (LFB) captures public interest with 'Fifty Shades of Red' social media campaign, saving substantial costs of advertising

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) has achieved a high level of engagement from interacting with citizens via social media, while saving money on costly advertising campaigns.

Over the summer the LFB launched a campaign which yielded 47,000 impressions on Facebook, increased its Twitter following by 3,000 and directed 30,000 visitors to its website in a single day.

The campaign latched onto the bestselling, risqué novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. The campaign – entitled Fifty Shades of Red – was launched to make people aware of the difficulties that can arise if individuals choose to use handcuffs.

“We wanted to talk about some of those incidents the fire brigade had to attend, many of which made people turn 50 shades of red,” said Glenn Sebright, head of media and internal communications at LFB. 

Austerity savings

The LFB’s budget for 2012/2013 was £420m, which equates to £49.76 per head of the population. But austerity measures have affected the organisation. The LFB has saved £71m, but is obliged to find another £45m saving over the next two years.

Over 2012/2013 the LFB received 178,000 calls, which included 20,000 fires and 25,000 false alarms. The organisation launched the Fifty Shades of Red social media campaign to reduce the number of unnecessary emergency call-outs.

Speaking at Socitm’s annual conference in London, Sebright said the organisation engaged its audience through social media in 2010 using its existing communications and PR staff.

“We didn’t understand what a social media team did at the time,” Sebright said. “We had five members in the comms team who worked hard to add a whole range of skills to their CVs.”

The LFB, which serves 33 boroughs in London, began using Twitter to inform the public of fire incidents. It then began to inform citizens about how to avoid fires; explaining what the organisation does; and how taxpayers’ money is being spent.

Precision social media campaigns

Sebright said using social media is unique because it allowed the organisation to engage an audience it had failed to reach in the past. A quarter of Facebook users are between 25 and 34 years old, and Sebright said in 2012 there were 1,500 fires involving young professionals.

“People go out for a good evening, come home put the chip pan on, and then have complications with fires.”

Using social media, the LFB targeted campaigns at this age group about the dangers of cooking after a night out drinking.  

Other campaigns the LFB launched on social media include making the public aware of the dangers of leaving hair straighteners switched on and encouraging landlords to maintain lifts so fire fighters aren’t called out to trapped people.

But Sebright said he hasn’t always had positive engagement online. “Some people think it’s inappropriate that we’re talking about handcuffs in a flippant way,” he said. But before social media, LFB campaigns would have required costly advertising to reach the same people, so sometimes it is worth taking the risk, he said.

Experimentation and evaluation

As well as Twitter and Facebook, the LFB is also experimenting with YouTube, QR codes, Instagram and the augmented reality app Blippar. “We’ll keep playing with those systems to see if they benefit us,” said Sebright. “The beauty of social media is it lends itself to what we’re trying to do –we’ve spent years looking at different system to capture the public’s imaginations.

While implementing a social media strategy has clearly benefited the LFB, it needs regular analysing to see which campaigns are successful and why.

“It’s incredibly important to report back on monthly basis to see what’s working and what’s not. What quality, rich content? Is it stuff that’s going to make people stick around?”

Sebright’s team used Google Analytics to analyse its website, while it works closely with IT to evaluate the impact social media makes on the system.

Expanding social media engagement

The LFB will have completed its three-year social media review in 2014. After that, Sebright wants to try encourage other departments across the organisation to implement a strategy, including the fire fighters themselves, in certain areas, borough commanders and HR.

He sees the Metropolitan Police engage with London citizens from specific boroughs locally, and Sebright said he would like to investigate the possibility of doing the same.

But with increasing cuts and LFB staff having issues with pensions, he said it is sometimes difficult to get the message across to the whole service, the rewards which can be gained by using social media.

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