CNN.com recently reported on how police departments are using Twitter, while it garnered a mention on PoliceOne. Twitter is, without a doubt, a great tool. But don’t jump on it just because a lot of other departments are. Jump on it because it’s a powerful means of connecting—and don’t restrict yourself to just one use.
Most agencies use Twitter to broadcast. They tweet police logs, traffic reports, dispatch calls. They are frequently followed by a number of people in their communities. They use it, in short, as another communications channel like TV or radio.
But Twitter is part of the “social” web. Most people who use it expect and intend to talk to other people: to network, share news, discuss things (yes, even in 140 characters or less). And while they may not expect their police department to follow them back (much less have discussions with them)–how many cops do that in real life?–it doesn’t mean tweeting officers shouldn’t do just that.
When I say be human, I mean that I’m a person, not a company. I run a company, but I’m a person. Thus, I get cranky, or I tell jokes, or I run at the mouth sometimes. Whatever. It’s part of the tapestry, not a flaw. If you’re not treating Twitter like a personal communications device that also happens to be a business tool (or some mix of the two), you’re missing what makes this fun and vital.
How can a police tweeter use Twitter to best effect?
- Follow followers back. Not necessarily all of them; feel free to be judicious. (The more people you follow, the more “noise” you’ll see; the more difficult it will be to listen and talk to people.)
- Following followers back enables them to direct-message you. This can be a valuable channel if they have a question or other issue they need to discuss privately. Even if you can’t help them yourself, a DM shows they trust you enough to believe you will get the ball rolling.
- Pay attention to your “@” replies. This is a key function of Twitter software as well as twitter.com. They will tell you when someone is talking to you. Software like TweetDeck will also access Twitter Search, telling you when someone merely mentions your username. (Be sure to check Twitter Search periodically for misspellings.)
- Broadcast department news, but also consider “retweeting” relevant community news (many local media outlets are beginning to join Twitter too). This is easiest when you follow those outlets.
- Consider following other interesting people: other cops, private investigators, other government bloggers, or people who blog about government bloggers.
Finally, if you or your administrators are uncomfortable with “@CityPD” talking more personally to people, consider establishing a personal account, whether or not you connect it to the agency account.
Likewise, if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of followers “@-ing” or DM’ing you, put a policy in place. Decide how you plan to deal with requests, what you will and won’t deal with. Most reasonable people will respect reasonable explanations.
A personal example of Twitter’s networking power: several weeks ago I was online, working late at night. One of the patrol officers I follow posted a question asking whether anyone could help him recover video evidence of an assault from Facebook. I follow a number of digital forensics examiners, both sworn and not, so I “retweeted” his request.
Within minutes we were getting responses. Some suggested tools he could use. Others warned him to be careful with whatever he used to get the video; collecting online evidence must remain legally defensible, and most tools aren’t made for this purpose. And at least two offered their assistance. He was able to get the video that night.
My point: Twitter is a place to exchange ideas and information with other cops, with concerned citizens in your own town—and beyond. If you want to try something, chances are someone else is also trying it or has tried it, and will be able to offer advice and insight. Even opinion can help shape policy.
So by all means, now that traditional media have shown other departments trying out this “new media,” feel comfortable jumping on board. Just don’t be afraid to flex its muscles even if other departments aren’t—yet. It took only a few agencies to start a trend; a few more taking it in another direction can be models for a kind of community involvement that many feel has been missing for too long.