Why digital marketing expertise can help reform the emergency services

As the idea of making a phone call is becoming an alien concept to Gen Z, where does this leave the 999 service? Marshall Manson, managing director, EAME, Social@Ogilvy sets out what government can learn from marketers on creating an emergency service fit for the digital age.

Should Snapchat or Twitter form part of our emergency services? The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) seems to think so.

Its recent report,‘Contacting Emergency Services in the Digital Age’, it suggests that teenager are no longer comfortable making calls and would prefer to use text-based services in an emergency.

The communications landscape has changed "drastically" since the 999 service was designed way back in 1937

In an extreme instance of poetic understatement, Professor Will Stewart, chair of the IET’s communications policy panel, observes that the communications landscape has changed "drastically" since the 999 service was designed way back in 1937. Surely no statistics or hyperbolic examples about digital natives using WhatsApp in primary school are necessary in support.

Digital by default

People in the generations born since 1980 want to communicate differently, we are now digital by default. Data dominates, and voice calling has been relegated to an afterthought. So we expect and increasingly demand that institutions, both public and private, connect with us on our terms.

While the emergency services are an indicator of how individuals engage with government, the report illustrates how the communications landscape has shifted, and the significant impact that shift is having on government and brands.

There are critical questions for anyone involved in marketing or communications: How should institutions, whether public services or big corporates, interact with the public? Who defines the terms of engagement? And how can institutions adapt faster?

For emergency services, this should be an easy win. Their successes are defined by their ability to receive, triage and respond to requests as quickly and effectively as possible. Providing more access points can only be a step forward.

Most calls are made from mobiles, and the modern smartphone has extensive capabilities that can greatly improve response, but are not yet being fully used; such as call trace, video and GPS. Marketers would do well to take note at this early stage, the IET rather states the obvious when it points out that it is vital to have user involvement early.

Moreover, while modern systems must be secured against dangers such as hacking, we should make the most of the capabilities that modern technology provides.

Inviting the public to connect via WhatsApp, Twitter or Facebook offers the promise that requests can be handled more effectively and efficiently

But the challenge, and also the point where a conversation about police, fire and ambulances becomes relevant for brands is the cost.

Moving with the times

No one likes to talk about cost when it comes to the emergency services. We just want to know that when we call 999, someone will answer immediately and send whatever we need in the seconds that follow. But the reality is that the emergency services have to be held to a standard of efficiency just like anyone else.

Inviting the public to connect via WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever channel they choose offers the promise that requests can be handled more effectively and efficiently.

Brands and businesses are already proving it. As more interaction shifts to online, call centre volumes are declining. This is reducing costs and improving customer satisfaction scores. Success requires greater flexibility in handling requests from a much wider array of sources, but the upside is substantial.

So as brands move on from a period where the social focus was on community management, a key new imperative is social care. Smart marketers will embrace an integrated approach that roots social activity in an understanding of consumer intent and fuels interaction with content delivered to micro audiences in the right place at the right time.

The challenge is to roll out an approach that is operationally feasible and robust, that also allows flexibility and takes on board public preferences. Put another way, the point, whether for emergency services or brand marketers, is that the public defines the terms and location for engagement.

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