If volunteer EMS organizations are going to survive they_ve got to start building ƒ and boosting ƒ their images now. To thrive at a time when volunteering in EMS is down all across the country, squads must increase their visibility in ways they may not have considered before.
Easier said than done? Not true. The fact is, with a little effort, most volunteer squads can triple their exposure at no cost beyond the hours necessary to write a few press releases and distribute them to the media.
Here_s a secret: Local papers need you as much as you need them. Papers survive by getting the names of local people in because that_s what keeps readers interested. Here_s another secret: The papers can_t do it alone. They need tips from you about interesting, informative stories.
The problem is that many squads pay scant attention to media coverage beyond putting out blurbs about their response to an accident. We_ve all read those reports; they_re usually dull, boring and written like incident reports. Start a story with ˙At 0700 hours ...Ó and you_re going to put people to sleep. Also, that kind of exposure isn_t going to attract new members, new donations or a better image.
The key to successful press releases is to step into the mind of a journalist. The best press releases read like good news stories. To get the PR effort underway, start by identifying one member as the public relations officer. Hopefully, this person can string sentences together. If not, assign the person to a public relations class at a local college, during which they can take on your public relations work for class credit.
Next, define the goals of the PR program. What is it you want to spotlight about the squad? Do you have a junior member program? Is there a new piece of equipment that benefits the community? Are you having a fund drive or seeking new members? Is there a member who, when not volunteering, has some unique job or skills? These are all potential stories that can generate positive, non-gory exposure. A side benefit is that they_ll also help build morale within the squad.
Take a look at your calendar. Are there dates when you can capitalize on other events? For instance, when the time changes from daylight savings, put out a release reminding residents to change the batteries in their smoke detectors. Doing so provides useful information to area residents while ingraining the name of your squad in their minds. That_s essential ƒ getting your organization_s name out to the community in non-emergency ways.
Now think of your media options. Most towns have a variety of media options ranging from weekly newspapers, daily newspapers, cable TV news operations and local broadcast stations. Learn the names of the reporters covering your area. Jot down e-mail or mailing addresses. Don_t forget online outlets as well.
When you_re ready to write a release, keep it simple. Average readers care less about the technical specifics of your new medical gizmo. Instead, they want to know what it can do for them in everyday, relatable terms.
As mentioned, writing a good press release starts with the basics of good journalism. At the heart is the inverted pyramid format. Imagine an upside-down pyramid. The most important information comes at the beginning of the story and the least important at the end.
Start with a simple sentence that describes what the squad is doing or has acquired. For example, when the Atlantic Highlands (N.J.) First Aid Squad got a new boat, the press release started this way:
˙ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS, N.J. Ï The Atlantic Highlands First Aid Squad has significantly increased its water rescue capabilities with the addition of a 1999, 18-foot Boston Whaler. The vessel is equipped with first aid supplies and the tools required to safety and swiftly transport an injured patient from the harbor and mooring fields to an awaiting ambulance.Ó
You_ll also want to quote a member or officer in the release, reinforcing how important this event or device is to the community.
In addition, you must include a standard description of the squad in every release, with a pitch for members or donations. For example: ˙The AHFAS responded to 424 calls for help during 2004. It_s estimated that one out of every 10 Atlantic Highlands residents will need help from the AHFAS in 2005. To learn more about supporting the AHFAS or becoming a member, call ... ˙
Include a contact name, phone number and an e-mail address where the paper or readers can reach someone for further information. If you have digital pictures, submit those, too.
Then sit back and watch. You_ll notice that providing newspapers with well-written, informative press releases will generate coverage you_ve never imagined. If you_ve done your job well, some papers will run the releases just as you_ve written them. And, maybe a few more members ƒ and perhaps a few more dollars ƒ will come through the door because of your efforts.
Richard Huff is the television editor of the New York Daily News and an EMT-B. When he's not watching television, he's running calls for the Atlantic Highlands First Aid & Safety Squad.