Media Relations in the Fire Industry

By Michelle Tanzola, Public Information & Marketing Manager

When I joined the Austin Fire Department as their PIO “back in the day,” my job had two main components: crisis communications and media relations. Eleven years later it now includes social media, intellectual property, marketing, advertising, public relations, training, technology and visual support. My division of one is now an in-house agency of three—myself, a webmaster/technology expert, and videographer/photographer.

Learn More About Fire Science DegreesYes, that’s right—I said an “in-house agency,” because that’s really what we are. It is our job to provide counsel, coaching, collaboration and collateral to our customers, helping them figure out how to best accomplish their goals in ways they may not know exist, understand or have even considered. Those customers include our own employees and their representative sections within our department, but they also encompass citizens, local politicians, media and a variety of other audiences, depending on the matter at hand.

Working for a fire department was something I never considered early in my career. With a Bachelor of Science in journalism (with a marketing minor), I had spent my career in corporate PR, working for Fortune 500 companies. I had been downsized when I answered an ad in the local paper for the position I now hold; more than 300 people applied for my job.

I have said many times that my background in working with for-profit companies has given my department the opportunity to look at things differently and I think that’s a real asset. I talk a lot about return on investment (ROI), community capital, being customer savvy, and making a profit (although not in the way you might think). Make no mistake—although I am working for a municipality, we are a business. We may not measure our success by dollars and cents on a balance sheet, but our ROI is just as quantifiable and important as anyone else’s, maybe even more so.

Applying business principles to an organization that is outside the “traditional” business arena can be an immensely rewarding experience, for both you and the company you work for.

Now that I’ve convinced you that working for a fire department is the best job ever, what next?

First, you must have a degree (either online or via an on-campus experience) in an applicable field—communications, marketing, or journalism. Communicating well across a variety of mediums is a talent that can’t be taught—only nurtured—and is a huge part of the job. Although I knew next to nothing about the fire department when I got hired, to paraphrase something my chief says, “I can teach you about the fire service, but I can’t teach you how to communicate effectively.”

Second, don’t discount working for a fire or fire/EMS department—you can get amazing experience in almost every aspect of communications and it is one of the few organizations that understands the importance of it. In Austin, fire and EMS are separate departments, although more than 85 percent of the 85,000 calls we make each year are medical in nature, so taking that aspect of the job into account is important and part of my daily routine.

And third, applying business principles to an organization that is outside the “traditional” business arena can be an immensely rewarding experience, for both you and the company you work for. You can apply what you know in a way they’ve never thought of before. Who would have thought the option of live chats (like what’s done in online retail purchases) could be used in a fire department? But we did it!

No longer is the PIO relegated to being just the department spokesperson. Crisis communications and media relations are still important parts of my job and in the fire service, they always will—and should—be. But today, working for a fire or fire/EMS department can garner you invaluable experience and open doors you didn’t even know were there. It’s an option you should definitely consider. Just don’t wait too long; there are 300 people in line behind you, ready and willing.

Bio: Michelle Tanzola is the public information and marketing manager for the Austin Fire Department (Austin, Texas). She can be reached at