Twitter: Not If, but How

Image: <a href=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.

Consider what one of my favorite social media experts had to say about Twitter:

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.

Information sharing

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.

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6 thoughts on “Twitter: Not If, but How

  1. Stephen Nolen

    Good post and nice informative site. I turned up the Shawnee Ok Twitter function a few months ago and the following continues to grow. We do not follow back at this time based on some ‘big brother’ feedback I received but agree the process needs to be bi-directional.

    Hope to get there soon – I have to get the local PD to better understand and use the tool for special situations such as Crime alerts, Amber alerts, and input back from the public.

  2. Christa Miller Post author

    Stephen, thanks for explaining why @ShawneePD is not following back. That’s very helpful. Curious about specifics of the “big brother” feedback — can you discuss? If not, email me?

  3. Stephen Nolen

    RE Big Brother – Originally I thought we may follow back but searched a bit and posed the question both online and offline. I did get several comments that some would feel ‘uncomfortable’ with the “ShawneePD” following them. The Orwellian idea I guess that the authority may be watching their every tweet thus the big brother analogy.

    We do monitor all @ replies with TweetLater. I plan on posting some questions in the near future with possibly link backs to local news threads or blog posts.

  4. Christa Miller Post author

    Hmm. Guess I have grown comfortable working around cops. If my local PD followed me back I would be glad they wanted to listen! (Then I would probably forget they were paying attention, LOL. Unless of course they were interacting. But if they were… hmm, I guess it depends on how comfortable administrators are entrusting their agency’s “brand” to a single person. The best community relations officers remain friendly but still with professional boundaries. Is this harder to transmit online? Do you think it makes a difference that you are a civilian representative rather than sworn?

  5. Stephen Nolen

    Not sure about differences re sworn or not for me – I was simply listening to input from others which actually changed my mind. I would imagine others in law enforcement would have less concern of being followed by other agencies than an independent citizen from the stereotypical stance though.

    I would say transferring the community relations interaction is definitely harder online without the face to face personal touch, not impossible but harder for sure. I also believe there is no separating the Police or Fire from the City, we are all one service organization and should interact as such.

  6. Pingback: Cops 2.0 » Blog Archive » Big Brother vs. public safety

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