It's an election year and a potentially chaotic one. That means candidates from all over will have "asks" of our firefighters, incident management teams, and agencies. Some will certainly try to wrap themselves in the image of firefighters.
Several years ago, there was a politician running for reelection who lost his mind and insulted a group of wildland firefighters. Word got out and his approval ratings plummeted. There was much talk in camp about it too. A few days later, I received a call from one of his staffers asking if the politician could come to our camp and serve the firefighters dinner. Being a good PIO, I asked the IC who said, "Tell them sure, he can come and do that. Also tell them that there will be palettes of MRE's next to the chow line and not one person in my fire camp will take food from that guy. And make sure media is here." I called the staffer back and told him our plan. He sighed and responded, "Nevermind." We had a nice warm meal and the politician lost the election.
Even considering the politician made it personal with firefighters and even though I was happy with the outcome, I always feel a bit of unease when I look back at that event. We treated the politician differently than we would others.
Our credibility comes from a chosen cultivation of non-partisanship in service to every person and community affected by an incident. There's also the heroic image wrapped around it all--an image created by the reality of sacrifice that we must guard assiduously. Politicians--being at least clever--recognize the appeal of that imagery and can force IMTs and PIOs into making a tough call. The best approach is obviously the tried and true standby of treating all candidates the same. We should not insert ourselves into the political process if we can help it. Even so, there will be some peculiar requests, I'm sure.
As an aside, in this post I've been using politics and partisanship interchangeably, but of course, every incident is political in a sense. Here's one of the five definitions for politics from Merriam-Webster:
a : the total complex of relations between people living in society
That's a more holistic and wholesome meaning than what we usually think, and it is the one that best applies to what we do--not to mention the one we naturally embrace. When we respond to an incident, we are inserting ourselves into the complex of relations between people living in the communities affected. We always try to leave relationships better than we found them, right?
OK, back to partisanship. (If the print is too small, this graph tracks US partisanship from 1949-2011.)
With the increased partisanship reaching everyone, the public now evaluates the credibility of information while wearing a political lens. This is an issue when critical information needs to be quickly relayed. It doesn't matter how pure we try to be, there will always be some who insist on viewing what we say as partisan or who try to exploit the incident for political gain. That leaves PIOs and IMTs in a tough spot.
Before I retired from the BLM, I tried to keep my personal political beliefs out of play, particularly when on incidents. At least, that's the lie I tell myself. Since retirement, my Twitter and Facebook posts have become more political and I suspect I was not as above-board as I'd like to think. Even considering my personal failings, the rationale for trying to keep quiet about that stuff was two-fold. As a Lead PIO, I never knew who would show up on an incident and if someone I was supervising had different political views, that potentially could be a stressor or time sink that would hamper the work. Also, as Lead, if I expressed my views then someone I'm supervising might not express theirs--or worse, pretend to have views they don't really have--because of the difference in our positions.
Neither are IMT members immune to the greater social dynamics. If you come to view a fellow team member as partisan or they see you as partisan, what does that do to your working relationship and the cohesiveness of the team? So, especially in this age, I think it is important for everyone to stay as cool as possible on the partisanship side. It will help with the work environment and it removes a likely source of stress--and our jobs already provide enough of that substance.
Then there's the partisan lens of our external audiences. If the public sees you as partisan it becomes much more difficult to reach them with important messages. However, it is not enough to just stay above the fray. You have to actively cultivate non-partisanship. Otherwise, people will automatically apply the same filter to you that they do to most of the information they receive day to day. They (we) are already cynical and at least unconsciously aware of manipulations practiced by advertisers, political advisers, and similar ilk. PIOs are fighting an uphill battle that could be lost just because we lapse into a cadence, vocabulary, or tone that mirrors partisan actors. To add the partisan filter by choice or fatigue makes the job of communicating during tough incidents much more difficult.
There will be occasion when journalists try to insert the partisan through questions. If you are doing the interview, don't fall for that bait. Stay inclusive, use We a lot, and illuminate the variety of all the folks working the incident.
To bring it back full circle, politicians are drawn to institutions that can confer bipartisanship or impartiality. So, the more we strive for non-partisanship, the more attractive we become to politicians attempting to appropriate that image, especially with the heroic present. Our image and our history are more important than currying favor with one politician or positioning for one budget cycle. We are both a part of that world and apart from that world, and it is up to everyone to insist on the distinction.
The best thing we can do is avoid the temptation to play and ensure we protect and enhance the hard-earned non-partisanship of incident management. We are a group of people with individual thoughts but when we come together in service, we serve everyone.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.