This week, a topic that's not discussed very often: Marketing in the PUBLIC sector.  How is it different?  Do you actually have 'Customers'??  What works differently???

My guest, Elizabeth Curtis, heads up Marketing and Communications at East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. She talks about the difficulties of protecting a well-loved and respected brand but also keeping it relevant. She discusses marketing on a small budget and some of the different audiences she addresses.


Kiran Kapur (00:13):
Today, we're going to be talking about marketing in the public sector, which is an area of marketing that really isn't covered enough. And I'm joined by Elizabeth Curtis, who is the communications and marketing manager at the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. Elizabeth, welcome. I think public sector marketing is a fascinating area. Can we start with a little bit about what the product or the services of the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service?

Elizabeth Curtis (00:41):
I think most people assume when they hear about fire and rescue that it's all about responding to emergencies. When you dial 9-9-9, you have an expectation that someone will come and help you. And that is obviously one of our key services that we provide the public. And you could describe it as a product. But we also do a lot of work preventing emergencies. So we do a lot of home safety checks, a lot of business safety checks. Obviously with COVID we've had to adjust the way we do that, because that used to be face-to-face. And what we've seen is that marketing has sort of come up, trumps with reaching people that we would normally engage face-to-face with.

Elizabeth Curtis (01:28):
So our marketing channels have changed if you're talking in those terms. Often we talk more about engagement and education. A lot of what we deliver is actually set out in law. So it's very different from a company which is selling a product. There are certain statutory duties we have to fulfill, but it's making sure the public know what those are and how they can access them that's most important.

Kiran Kapur (01:56):
That's interesting, because you've talked about some products. I want to ask a bit more about that. But isn't what you're really selling a sense of reassurance or a sense of security? So the brand is the brand of, I can trust a fire and rescue service is really important.

Elizabeth Curtis (02:11):
Trust is one of the key points that we know we enjoy. The public do trust us. I think it's interesting when you have got this sort of the two drivers, the public expectations of us and the legal expectations of us. And when you're looking at that, how you fill that space in people's minds about what we're offering is quite fascinating. I think particularly with the tragedy at Grenfell, fire safety has become much more important to a lot of people who perhaps haven't thought about it before. And certainly reassurance is one of those things that they expect us to do. But more and more often, they expect us to take action as well to keep them safe. So it's not just being there and waiting like an insurance policy, but it's actually going out there and making the difference before the bad things happen. And I think when you talk about the branding for all fire and rescue services, we offer the same thing.

Elizabeth Curtis (03:19):
So while we may be a monopoly in East Sussex and in Brighton and Hove, across the whole of the UK, you have different services doing things slightly differently. And we do a lot of work sharing with other communications teams of how they are trying to reach people and to make sure people are aware of the dangers. Not just of fires, but road safety, water safety. And some of those messages, you really have to sort of try them out and see how they hit home, because people don't assume it will happen to them. And they often don't realize that they can change their future by their own behavior. And I think that's what attracts me is this idea of making people realize your destiny is in your own hands a lot of the time. If you can make some small adjustments, you will be safer. So while we're providing, as you say, reassurance. What we'd like to do in the future is be more of the friend that walks beside you and make sure you don't have the accidents in the first place.

Kiran Kapur (04:38):
It's interesting, because I think so often when we hear fire and rescue service, the bit we think about is the fire. So you're rescuing people from a fire, but what you're actually saying is it's a much wider remit around safety.

Elizabeth Curtis (04:51):
Yes, yes. I mean, we have a whole range of skills. Road traffic collisions. Sort of commonly known things about the jaws of life, where you cut open a car. Some of those stereotypes are the reality of the work that they do. But often you'll find that there'll be brought, called to a scene to make the scene safe. So we'll be clearing up fuel after a road traffic collision. And so some of it is not exactly the high adrenaline activity you would see in films, but it is very important to keep the world moving safely. We have rope rescue teams, we have training on water safety to make sure that we can reach people who need rescuing from rivers and such like. And we work with a lot of partners who often have a greater skill base in those areas. And we're part of a much wider team.

Elizabeth Curtis (05:56):
We also have a very good working relationship with the local ambulance service. And we're seeing particularly more rescues requiring our support. So gaining entry to people's homes in order for the ambulance crew and the paramedics to reach them. So it's a whole range of work we do. And perhaps a lot of it goes unnoticed until you need us yourself. I think one of the greatest things that we do, which again, is very enjoyable for those involved in it, is going into schools. So we do a lot of education work.

Elizabeth Curtis (06:34):
But again, that tends to go sort of almost unnoticed because it is not the dramatic side of things that perhaps the news locally will pick up on. So for us, the marketing challenge is often reminding people that we're here and we can offer lots of different support in different ways. And making sure people know how they can get to us. And we do all this on a very small marketing budget. I mean, I have about 7,000 pounds a year to cover everything we do. And that's a tough call, but you have to be inventive and you have to lean on other partners to help share messages.

Kiran Kapur (07:17):
Wow. That really is quite a small budget.

Elizabeth Curtis (07:21):

Kiran Kapur (07:21):
There's so many things in there that I want to pick out, but I want to start with the education and going into schools. Are you doing it... I can see there's an education message. Obviously, we want children to learn to be safe. But is there also a branding message that the fire service has come into school and they are there to protect me? So is it something on the branding side as well as the education side?

Elizabeth Curtis (07:42):
There is. And I think the service wants children to grow up trusting the fire service, knowing what we can do, believing in us, because I think there are a lot of organizations now that sort of pull young people in every direction. And to have an organization, a public sector organization, that people feel that they are emotionally connected to and they can trust is important. We have our own fire cadets who potentially want to work with us in the future, but who can learn lots of life skills throughout. So that's another product as it were. But it is very much about the person. And a lot of what we do is about people rather than process and profits. And I think when you're talking about the brand of the fire and rescue service, it's very rare to have negative comments about us. So really you're looking at how you protect the brand rather than anything else.

Kiran Kapur (08:52):
Can I explore a bit more about who your customers are? Now normally, when I talk to anybody and I say, "So who are your customers?" And sometimes people that want to launch a company will come back and go, "My potential customers are everybody." And I go, "Don't be ridiculous. It's just the people that use you." But in your case, your customers really are everybody, because anybody could need the fire and rescue service.

Elizabeth Curtis (09:12):
Yes. Our audience is very wide ranging. What we do is work closely with our community risk analysts, who essentially find out who is most at risk of fire or most at risk of other accidents or incidents. So we are able to prioritize our audiences. So yes, we would love to speak to everyone all the time. Realistically, that is just too much to take on. So we have to think about our marketing mix, think about which activities are going to be specifically targeted to people who are perhaps more vulnerable because they have mobility issues, for example. So for them a fire in their home could potentially be much more life-threatening than for someone who can walk out the door easily. So all of these factors help us prioritize audiences. What we have found though, is that you also want to prioritize on things like how frequently someone might have a particular type of incident.

Elizabeth Curtis (10:25):
So it might not be the seriousness of it, but it might be that actually they've got a lot of false alarms. So their fire alarm system is going off because they're not looking after it properly in a business. And you will want to work with them. And that is sort of the on the ground activity, working with them. Meanwhile, the communications team wants to target other businesses to help them change their behavior so that we don't get called out to these non events. Again, we have a lot of sort of stakeholder mapping, which goes on. And we look at groups in the community. So with Brighton and Hove is so much more diverse than the rest of our area. And we have got a lot of poverty in some areas. Which you would perhaps think when you look at the some of the picturesque parts of our area, that everyone's living a lovely life. But there are people that need us more. And it does make it challenging to find them because we talk about hard to reach groups, which is a bit of an outdated term these days.

Elizabeth Curtis (11:41):
But this idea that you can't reach people easily through technology or through the social activities that perhaps the rest of us enjoy, means that we do to be inventive. But you're right, having everyone as our target audience would be... It's unrealistic to be able to deliver against that. But that is the reality. We are here for everyone.

Kiran Kapur (12:06):
Two things I want to pick up on. I want to come back on the ways that you spend, what you by yourself described as a small budget. But one other thing I wanted to pick up on was I've been saying the word customer. And I noticed that you have responded each time with stakeholder or audience. So presumably it's public sector language that you don't talk about customers as such.

Elizabeth Curtis (12:27):
We will refer to customer service. I think it's because customer for us suggests that they are opting in to something and choosing us. I think with, particularly with our nine, nine, nine service, obviously there is no choice. You get what you're given in whichever service you request. I think we are probably moving towards seeking more feedback of people that have experienced our service, whether it is the emergency response or whether it's something we've fitted smoke alarms in their homes, how have we done? And it is interesting. I think most... There is probably resistance within the fire service to think of the public as customers, because there is no overt exchange of money. Although, obviously we're funded through taxpayers, so they are paying for us.

Elizabeth Curtis (13:26):
It's just not a case of we turn up and then we leave you with a bill. So I think customer, the word customer is less used. But in reality, they are a customer with no choice. They have to use us if they want the services that we offer in this area, or they choose not to take up those. They choose not to have a free smoke alarm fitted by us, or they decide that they don't want to come along to one of our open days. Yes, it's not a word that we would use.

Kiran Kapur (14:05):
That makes perfect sense. Can we talk a little bit about how... You talked about behavioral change and you talked about having a small budget. What can you do and what do you do? You mentioned leveraging other parts of the organization.

Elizabeth Curtis (14:20):
I think our main route in at the moment remains social media. And I think the whole sector has been slow in embracing the probably more relaxed tone of social media. And we have over the years realized that doing sort of finger wagging, do this, do that approach, is not going to bring about any real change. Because the people that follow us are probably doing the thing in the first place. And that's why they're following us. What we have been trying to do is be a bit more disruptive and finding things that will break through the usual noise. It's not easy. We still have almost a legacy of expectations that people expect us to do X, Y, Z. And when we do something A, B, C, they don't really understand how that works. And people will start to question, why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?

Elizabeth Curtis (15:24):
For me, you really do have to rely on some of the traditional routes that you would use. So the media is very important to us here. Getting them on board, helping them understand that if they are going to report on what we do, if they can include information which helps protect the public, that's fantastic. And I think we also have been looking at how we can better use technology across the board. So obviously the issues with COVID pandemic means that a lot of activities have been driven online. Which is fine if you've got access to that, but we remain challenged by those people that have just sort of dropped off the edge because they don't have access to the technology that you need to be able to support that sort of interaction. Even things we used to... We used to put advertising on buses. People aren't on buses anymore.

Elizabeth Curtis (16:31):
So it's been a real challenge. Radio has been one of our routes to get to more people as well. Radio advertising. And most of the time we are thinking about how we get the key safety messages out. When it comes to behavior change, we think about, well, is the messenger going to be the most important? Is it who's telling you this? We found that letters from our organization to some members of the community work best. So the older generations, a letter, which is from our local sort of commanders, our local managers, has more of an impact than leaflets through the door.

Elizabeth Curtis (17:24):
So that we've been doing a little bit of A/B testing to see how people respond to different activities. Just gleaning that information has become more important because so many of our usual routes, our usual face-to-face interactive, lively events have been shut off to us. And yes, with a small budget, you really do scrutinize what you're investing in and finding ways to evaluate is key. So it's not easy and we haven't always got it right. But we've always learned something.

Kiran Kapur (18:08):
Yes. I think evaluation is always key. And it's often the bit that doesn't sound particularly exciting, but really matters. I'm very intrigued by how you got into public sector marketing. Because I think it's an area that marketers often don't think about. I don't think that I would have thought before I met you that fire and rescue services had a marketing department as such. So how did you get into this area?

Elizabeth Curtis (18:34):
I trained as a journalist and worked in radio for many years. And I became more interested in what the other side was doing as it were. And in journalism, you sort of talk about PR as it's the dark side. However, the more I experienced it, the more I realized, no, this is much more fun in many ways. And I ended up moving from being a radio journalist into a communications role at a healthcare regulator. And that's really where I sort of cut my teeth, got my qualifications under my belt, and really started learning about how to think of the world in a different way. How to make sure that you're not just trying to get the attention of the most, the largest number of people possible, but actually there are certain people you need to do certain things. Understanding, well, what is our call to action?

Elizabeth Curtis (19:40):
How do we get people to move from A to B in order... In healthcare regulation, it was normally to, again, to obey the rules. And that wasn't public sector so much, that was a self-funded regulator. So we charged dental professionals a fee, so they had to be registered to work. And then we sort of imposed standards on them. And that was a really weird world that I'd never even properly understood that existed until I worked in it. And that kind of lit the fire for the fire service, literally. It was for me, I was thinking, this is great. I wonder what else is out there? Which is a different kind of marketing, which isn't about selling a product, which isn't about the traditional ideas of profits.

Elizabeth Curtis (20:38):
Let's have a look. And you've got your county councils, you've got healthcare, you've got a lot of organizations out there doing a lot of socially responsible marketing. But you also need to almost be a bit more disruptive. And that's what I quite like. The idea that we can start pushing the boundaries a bit more. You do have to have brave managers around you to let you do that. And I don't think I've thought of anything too terrible yet that they've they balked at.

Kiran Kapur (21:14):
Now we have to ask for examples, because several times you've said disruptive and different things.

Elizabeth Curtis (21:19):

Kiran Kapur (21:20):
What sort of things are we talking about?

Elizabeth Curtis (21:22):
Genuinely, we were so traditional. When I first arrived, so traditional. Making a joke on social media was frowned on. And trying to have a bit of a cheeky chat with another organization. So you're sort of gate crashing into conversations online. It's nothing radical. And I think this is where we've got a lot to learn in the public sector about doing things differently. I think one of the worst things though is if you do something too quirky, there is the, "You're wasting taxpayers' money on this, are you?" But we've running competitions, for example, is a classic example of people said, "Well, you can't give away anything that's too valuable because people will challenge why you're doing that." I said, "Well, let's try. Let's see what happens." Going out and asking people what they've done wrong.

Elizabeth Curtis (22:29):
Again, this was... We carried out a survey in order to provide us with some insights and some marketing materials about, have you ever had a near miss? And I was told, no one's going to ever admit to accidentally burning their toast. Everyone and everyone, "Yeah. The smoke alarms always going off. I did this, did that." And while that doesn't sound too radical, I guess we are sort of a bit concerned that we're seen as pushing the boundaries into a place where people won't respect us if we're too lighthearted. I personally don't think that's the case. And I don't think it'll ever be the case because of the seriousness of the work that our firefighters do on the ground. But I do think we can be more personable and try and shake things up a bit.

Elizabeth Curtis (23:24):
One of the campaigns we did was purely about helping people have fun in Brighton safely. So there weren't the safety messages that I keep talking about. They weren't being pushed down people's throats. It was literally, we've got some vouchers to give away for this local attraction, or we can send you on this experience. And people were like, "Why are you doing that?" And it's building a relationship with the people that we serve is important to us because it means they are more likely to have us in their mind. And this is sort of raising the brand awareness. Understanding that we are here and we are here for them. So that was an interesting campaign to try and get people to think differently. Yes, it's challenging. We're nudging our way into that world.

Kiran Kapur (24:20):
But I can see that you do have to be careful because you are walking a tight rope that you don't become so flippant that when people are thinking that they're in an emergency, they go, "But they might laugh at me," or something.

Elizabeth Curtis (24:30):
Yeah. And I think that it's... Again, going back to the way the public think of us. It's marvelous. It's great. We want that to remain. We want them to listen to us when there is an incident. We want them to listen to us when we're trying to prevent an incident. What we also now want to do, and this is the bit where we're trying to move the targets, is become something, an organization that people recognize is part of the community not just in the tough times. It's strange, because I'm just writing our new communications engagement and consultation strategy. And trying to understand where we want to be in five years time at the end of the strategy is quite interesting because you're sort of thinking, well, we'll still be doing the same thing.

Elizabeth Curtis (25:30):
We won't be changing our products. We won't be radically different as an organization. But will we be, for example, involving more people in our decision-making? Will we be looking at different sectors of the community and bringing them more into sort of into the fold, understanding what their needs are and how different they may be from other people that we've communicated with before? And also sort of understanding marketing more. When you look at the backdrop of all the change due to COVID. I mean, that is something that I think the marketing sector is going to be picking over for years. How has this changed us? How's it changed the way we look at each other, let alone look at organizations? And one of the things that, the basic things is that we, as a fire service, have remained here doing our bit and also doing some extra work to support other services. Has that affected the way people looked at us? Or has it passed unnoticed because the NHS has been bearing the brunt?

Elizabeth Curtis (26:48):
And realistically, how many people, when you've got something as worrying as a pandemic happening, how many people are going to listen to us when the lockdown ends? People are going to be out having fun again. That's going to be a challenging time for fire and rescue services, because there could be numerous risks that we just don't know how people are going to behave. So writing a strategy to deal with all those uncertainties is fascinating, because we don't need to grow our sort of stakeholder base because it's everyone in eye area. But what we might need to do is think about the visitors.

Elizabeth Curtis (27:30):
Brighton has a million visitors a year or so, where are they coming from? Do we need to get any messages to them before they cross over the border in their cars, or jump into the sea, or what have you? What is it that they are going to do? So there are challenges coming up and it's going to be a group effort with my team. And we've recently had a restructure, where my graphic designers have also taken on the role of content designers. So they're currently learning new skills and we'll be relying on them a lot more to come up with innovative and better ways of reaching the people that we need to.

Kiran Kapur (28:15):
Elizabeth Curtis, that was a really interesting view of public sector marketing. An area, as I said, many marketers are just not aware of at all. Thank you very much, indeed. And it's nice to have an optimistic note of lockdown will eventually end.

Elizabeth Curtis (28:27):

Kiran Kapur (28:28):
Thank you very much for your time. It's been lovely to speak to you.

Elizabeth Curtis (28:30):
Okay. You're very welcome.