Ssh… hear that?

Listening provides insights, sometimes unexpectedly

Listening provides insights, sometimes unexpectedly

This blog by a Portsmouth (Virginia) civilian points up how valuable the concept of “listening” is to modern police departments—all departments, not just those who are engaging the public on social networking sites.

At the very least, rudeness is a common complaint among civilians. “That cop acted like he didn’t get his donut this morning,” they might say of an officer who stopped them for speeding. Worse, even acting totally within policy might land you in USA Today.

Either way, there is no explaining that officers have good and bad days like anyone else, that policies are in place for good reasons. The uniform is all they see. And as one Twitter followee put it: “When customers complain, they are first looking to be validated. Remember that before saying ‘sorry it’s policy.’”

It’s easy to get defensive, to use misunderstanding as an excuse to insulate oneself and one’s agency from legitimate criticism. But the beauty of the Internet is that no one has to know you’re listening.

Value in listening alone

Listening doesn’t only enable you to gauge your agency’s general reputation both within and outside of your community. It also helps you assess current events. Take, for instance, this rundown of the recent Toronto storm. I was struck in particular by these paragraphs:

As weather stations forecast the storm earlier in the day, there was a brief spike in conversation in the morning. Conversation related to the tornadoes themselves began to erupt around 6pm….

Another noticeable feature is the second spike in conversation later in the evening. The storm was well away from Toronto by this point; this spike represented people discussing their experiences and posting photos and videos they had collected during the episode.


Not surprisingly, with Twitter being the golden child of the moment, especially for time-sensitive updates, micromedia comprised almost three-quarters of the conversation relating to tornadoes. Blogs made up 13 per cent, while images captured by people comprised 10 per cent of the conversation.

This is a substantial departure from the day as a while, during which nearly 40 per cent of the conversation about Toronto occured on blogs and a similar amount occurred on Twitter. A useful reminder that while Twitter is high-profile, on a day-to-day basis much conversation happens elsewhere.

(I bolded the text above.) Click through to the full post—it comes complete with graphs showing usage patterns.

Given that people now rubberneck incident scenes with camera phones in hand, listening has immediate value to most everything a law enforcement agency does. So how do you listen?

Listening tools

Chris Brogan’s method of aggregating RSS feeds (described in two separate posts, here and here) may be the simplest.

Still too complicated? Plan to move towards aggregate RSS feeds, but start with Google Alerts. They’re easy to set up for mentions of your town: Greenville + “South Carolina,” Portland + Maine, Pittsburgh + G20.

Tack on the words “police” and/or “crime” or some other related term if you wish, but consider staying general, getting a feel for what’s going on in the area as a whole—or at least, online public perception of what’s going on.

Search Twitter and Google News on local issues: police contract negotiations, discontent with a political or business issue (say, Wal-Mart moving in), public reaction to a high-profile crime (and police response to it), even traffic patterns (especially if you’re running targeted patrols in certain areas). Monitter allows you to search Twitter on three simultaneous terms; Backtype allows you to track blog comments via keywords.

Whether Google Alerts or targeted searches, remember to refine your efforts. Some search terms may be too narrow, others too broad. Change them up as your needs change, as new issues arise.

Need more? A comprehensive (and regularly updated) list of monitoring tools is available. Take a week or two to explore each site, then propose which solutions would best fit your agency.

What needs listening to in your community?

Image: keela84 via Flickr

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7 thoughts on “Ssh… hear that?

  1. Tom Le Veque

    Good tips! TweetDeck offers a search feature that will pop up each time you log in to check your Twitter account. It is a quick way to see current comments about our area and updates without propmpting. The Google alert also works very well and will find items, new and old, that you miss during searches on a particular topic. Listening…a skill to practice in relationships, business, and now, on-line…
    .-= Tom Le Veque´s last blog ..School Starts Next Week! =-.

  2. Christa Miller Post author

    Thanks Tom, yeah, that’s another topic — learning which tools are best for the task you want to accomplish! There are so many by now, some even seem to fit user preferences as well as needs!

    I neglected to mention (mainly because I wrote this before the news broke) that the London Metropolitan Police actually hired a firm to perform listening. (That list I mentioned at the end of the article includes tools like Radian6, Techrigy, etc. that do that.) Generally, departments with the budget to do this are also the ones being talked about most, so looking into those “power” tools are good for them to do.

    However, I understand that these companies provide even lower-cost services, so may be a good alternative for mid-sized departments that have resources for public information/community relations, but not necessarily social media too.

  3. Dan Alexander

    Great piece, Christa. I think it is a great call for a break in the action regarding SM. So much chatter out there, very little listening. We have scheduled some focus group sessions planned in September for the purpose of “listening” better. Thanks!
    .-= Dan Alexander´s last blog ..Great Expectations =-.

  4. Christa Miller Post author

    Thanks Chief! You’re going to blog about those sessions, right? :) I’ll look forward to seeing what comes of it, both from community and from your standpoint!

  5. Ellen Rossano

    Hi Christa – I think you hit in a great point. Agencies can use SM to listen as well as to push out info. Some departments and agencies are hesitating to get into SM, but when you show them what their presence is – or isn’t – “out there,” they get a little more interested. The Operations Division of the Boston Police Dept. is going a great job on Twitter – a good model for other departments to consider.


  6. Christa Miller Post author

    Thanks Ellen! What I have noticed of the agencies that are jumping on SM, is that they seem to be doing it almost preemptively, still pushing out info because that’s what they’re used to doing and also most comfortable doing — when there is an opportunity for so much more. I see listening as an easy first step (or next step if they’re already using SM to “push”) — I also think it helps them see what conversations are all about, think about how they might get involved, even if not right away.

  7. Pingback: Cops 2.0 » Blog Archive » Case study: How Boca Raton PD responds to community needs

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