Mental illness is a hot topic in the news right now, thanks largely to mass killings, domestic violence and violence that doesn’t fit either of those narratives. While the stories help to highlight the overall topic — that mental illness is prevalent among our neighbors, coworkers and the strangers we pass each day — they don’t do much to help us understand deeper issues, such as how to recognize and then communicate with people who have mental illnesses.
This affects emergency services more than it does the rest of us, because police, fire and EMS personnel are usually the first on the scene during or after an incident. They often don’t know how to respond appropriately, for a variety of reasons. As a result, things can go very bad very fast. The subject gets hurt or killed, the cops look bad, and community trust is broken. It should follow that you can’t have an effective social media program if you don’t have effective communication to start with.
On Wednesday night, we explored some of these issues in #copchat. Mostly in order, the transcript follows below. Click “Read more” on the bottom right of each segment to continue.
Nearly a year ago, as I caught up on tweets following my talk at the Police Leadership Conference, a series of tweets caught my eye. They came from Sasha Taylor, Chair of the National Police Web Managers Group.
Sasha and I got into a good discussion about social media use in law enforcement, and although my work took me in a different direction last year, he stayed on my radar. Which was why I got back in touch with him a few weeks ago, when he tweeted about the upcoming Blue Light Camp: an “unconference” designed to discuss public safety best practices for social media.
The free, daylong event will take place on Sunday, April 15th from 9am to 5pm at Manchester Central exhibition centre—the day before British APCO’s annual event. It will focus in particular on social media use in times of unrest, drawing from UK experiences in 2011. Cops 2.0 talked further about it with Camp organizer Paul Coxon:
How does BlueLightCamp fill a hole in crisis-related discussions that other gov-related or police-related conferences left open?
BlueLightCamp is unique in that it is the first truly multidisciplinary emergency services unconference in the UK. Most other conferences would either be for the police authorities or the fire services or front-line healthcare or social care providers, to our knowledge no one has yet created an event that brought them all together. Sasha recognised that a lot of the conversations being had within the police and healthcare arenas cut across all Blue Light Services and there was learning that could be of benefit to all.
The other big difference about Blue Light Camp is that, aside from the sectors involved, we are not dictating who should attend and already we have an exciting mix of communicators, front-line workers, people in senior and strategic roles and even research scientists who have signed up to attend.
What about the “unconference” format do you feel will best facilitate the discussions you envision taking place?
I used to have a boss who loved going to conferences because, in his own words, it was an easy day were he didn’t have to do anything and could basically sleep. Unfortunately for a lot of people that is what conferences are about, but that’s not what an unconference is about. Unconferences will not work without everyone playing their part and for this reason they attract the type of people who want to engage around the topics.
The type of people who want to engage are the type of people that are likely to share their learning and experiences, the type of people who will lead positive change in their organisation and the wider sector, and that is what Blue Light Camp is about, creating the conversations that lead to positive change.
In addition to this, unconferences often take place out of work hours, those attending do so in their own time and at their own cost, which contributes to making them more willing to participate, network, share best practice and take away new ideas to their organisations/local networks.
Crisis management and mapping will be presented. Any other sessions you know of that are (at least roughly) planned?
The beauty of an unconference is you won’t really know the sessions that will be pitched until delegates begin pitching them, but we are hopeful to see examples of how 24-hour tweeting has worked for police service and council services, the ways in which Facebook and Twitter have been used to engage communities, metrics of SM channels, gamification are all topics discussed at other conferences.
People often discuss other areas of SM such as use of QR codes, Wikipedia, open data, blogging and general communications. We also have research fellows attending from the Disaster 2.0 project which is looking at use of social media during disasters and emergencies.
People come to unconferences to either share an idea or an experience so will lead a session for this reason; others will have barriers/questions that they would like discuss with others that have experienced the same issues or have the expertise to find a solution. Sharing at its best.
How many of your participants will also attend BAPCO, and what do you hope they will bring with them from BLC?
One of the perks of signing up with Blue Light Camp is membership of British APCO, who are our venue sponsors, we would hope as many BlueLightCamp-ers as possible will stick around for the BAPCO Annual Exhibition and Development Sessions, but more than this, we hope they will carry on the BlueLightCamp conversations with those BAPCO members who were not able to attend.
Paul, David and Sasha will also be on hand throughout the BAPCO event to continue any conversations from the BlueLightCamp event and to help with any social media surgeries to continue the sharing experiences and best practice.
Will you make available content for people who were unable to attend BLC?
We will be making BLC content available across a number of channels before, during and after the event, from videos, blogs, podcasts, and live-tweeting. The main source of information will always be the BlueLightCamp site: http://bluelightcamp.wordpress.com/
Participants are expected and encouraged to tweet throughout the event and people often blog about their experiences post event. Many of the new connections people make continue well beyond the closing speeches at the event.
Anything else you would like to mention?
So far, the response to BlueLightCamp has been very positive with 75% of the 170 tickets going within three weeks of our launch. We have a variety of brilliant sponsors that have the vision to support these events and thus making them free for the attendees. Without the sponsors unconferences would not be so easy to put on.
After a, hopefully, successful event this year planning will start again for 2013 with the aim of making this a regular calendar event for Blue Light Services.
Central to Toronto Police Services’ success: careful planning and execution before, during, and even after the summit. Cops 2.0 authors Laura Madison and Christa Miller talked with three people heavily involved in these activities – Marco Battilana, Constable Wendy Drummond, and Sgt. Tim Burrows.
During the G20, the Public Information Unit (PIU)‘s normal approach to communication – one Burrows calls “multi-pronged,” involving both internal and external public relations – changed.
“A multi member team made up of representatives from the Integrated Security Unit (ISU) Partners and many police services across Ontario formed the information team,” says Burrows. “We all worked together across mainstream and social media venues to bring up to date information to all members of our communities.”
The TPS officers’ roles did not change by much. Although all can use social media in the course of their duties, only two – Burrows and Constable Scott Mills – focus their energy on its use. (Burrows, who works with the Traffic Services Unit, describes his role as “parallel” to the PIU.)
“Scott Mills has been identified as the Social Media Officer for the Service and he works in the PIU offices with the other Media Relations and Public Information Officers,” Burrows says. During the G20, Burrows and Mills were assigned social media tasks, each officer working a 12-hour shift so that the TPS could provide 24-hour coverage and monitoring of social media platforms.
Likewise, the other officers generally stuck with their usual tasks. For example, Drummond says her role as media relations officer makes her more hands-on: “responsible for liaising with the media on a daily basis, providing updates on current investigations, and creating public safety alerts to ensure the public is armed with information to which they can adjust their own actions and decisions.”
Overseer of both internet and intranet environments, he had developed the V2010 ISU website and social media presences from scratch, maintained the intranet site, and monitored and reported on each environment’s analytics, along with other duties. These duties were similar to what he does for the RCMP E Division, where he also trains media relations officers on content management.
The experience led to his being called on for the Toronto ISU. “With V2010 ISU, I already had an idea of what types of social media personas there would be: Supportive Government Partners, Anti-Establishment, enthusiasts, media, etc.
“Even before 2010, I had already been monitoring Beijing 2008’s social media efforts and was formulating how to improve. Having an idea of the different personas definitely helped me with planning my G8 / G20 experience and how the G8 / G20 ISU Public Affairs Communications Team (PACT) could have a positive influence for all involved.”
Battilana’s role, then, was not so much one of authority as one of guidance. “We all did the same social media monitoring when it came to the duties at the time,” he explains. “I merely gave my suggestions based on my expertise and experience.
“The other members had already established the social media monitoring and it was working very well. I simply wanted to take it one step further and be truly interactive with the public: [to achieve] two-way communication between the G8 / G20 ISU and the public and/or media.
“Scott and Tim were a great asset as they had already been living and breathing this. Their Twitter and Facebook accounts were already doing what I thought the G8 / G20 ISU should be doing, so it simply solidified the success of what was to come.”
Planning: The Event
The G20 was, perhaps not coincidentally, planned to immediately follow the G8 summit. However, says Drummond, while the city had plenty of time to plan for the G8, police were only notified of the G20 plans in February 2010.
“With not as much time to prepare as there was for the G8, planning went into full speed ahead,” she says. “Communications was key, and working with the communities that were going to be affected directly as a result of their proximity to the Metro Convention Centre, was paramount.
Despite TPS’ documented success with social media use, the ISU had little to draw on in terms of other G20 responders’ experiences. Nevertheless, says Drummond, “We knew that we were going to have to reach thousands of people to deliver several messages prior to and during the summits, and that is where social media assisted our Public Affairs Communications Team.”
This, she adds, ended up being one of the few things about back-to-back summits that was not costly and challenging. “Through the use of social media, we were able to communicate effectively out of one location, and social media, as you know, can be done anywhere, at anytime, reaching a large number of people, all at once.”
Exercises are important to planning for emergency or other critical situations. Historically, they include traditional media (including misinformation) and other elements that make for a scenario that is as accurate as possible.
However, while G20 exercises mentioned social media, practical exercises were not included. “This is a type of training that could be used to effectively answer questions to unforeseen problems and train officers to recognize the best practices to dealing with issues that could come up during real events,” Burrows acknowledges.
On the other hand, says Drummond, many elements of communication during the G20 were unexpected. “Being able to respond to questions and inform people as to what to expect is a lot different then dealing with public reaction and criticism,” she explains.
“Some of the messaging that we expected to be an issue with the public was not, and other issues felt to be moot became daily topics! Such as the removal of small trees to allow for the helicopter to land.”
Battilana, at the time still involved with the V2010, could not directly participate in the pre-event planning. Still, he says, “The PACT communication plan initially mirrored the V2010 ISU social media plan. When I arrived, I made some suggestions for monitoring. Tweetdeck was currently being used by the social media team, which worked. I suggested also using Hootsuite as a primary monitoring tool, which we did with great success. Facebook to Twitter was also utilized.”
While the use of these tools was so successful that Battilana says he would continue in the same vein, he cautions against overdependence on them. “What’s more important is keep on top of what tools are being used at the time. Who knows what will be around in five years. The key is to stay aware.”
Addressing violence and public anxiety
Protestor violence in other cities meant that in Toronto, messaging would have to take high emotions into account. “Social media was known to have been in use by protestors, both peaceful and not in previous summits,” says Burrows, “so its use was recognized as a valuable communication tool from the very beginning. [We used it] to monitor protest movements, inform and educate the public and to answer concerns and questions.”
One key example: “A couple of weeks prior to the G20, the ISU held a Technical Briefing, putting on display the many specialized units and equipment that was expected to be used, including the controversial LRAD [Long Range Acoustic Device],” says Drummond.
“This briefing was very beneficial as it somewhat set the stage for what people could expect to see, and really, be able to get their heads around the fact that there was gong to be such a large increase of police presence on the streets of Toronto.”
“This generated much discussion and talk on social media sites,” says Drummond. “We posted a lot of video explaining the duties and responsibilities of the different units, and the function of LRAD. This also in turn allowed the public to express their concerns and distrust in the use of the LRAD.”
Which, says Burrows, there was plenty of. “The public was very concerned about the use of the LRAD from what they saw at the Pittsburgh G20 summit. The ISU was intent on letting the public know that we were going to use it for communication and not as a weapon. Our plans never varied and as people understood the use of the tool and how the ISU was to use it, the fear was truly unfounded.”
Ultimately, says Drummond, planning for social media use need not be complicated. “As a law enforcement agency we fall within the realm of public safety and are required to abide by certain guidelines and requirements, but the forum in which the information is delivered is unique and needs to be specific to address individual audiences in order to maximize the effectiveness of the communications,” she explains.
For example, Battilana adds, says Police Services’ emphasis on two-way social media communication was much more developed than it had been for V2010. “The response was something that I wanted to see happen just like how the PACT would release media lines,” he explains. “We’d have the same vetting, approval and release, except not as verbose. Really though, it all comes down to effective communication. And that’s what the PACT was wanting to achieve with SM, and I believe that is what we all did.”
Social Media During the G20
Social tools were not only valuable as communications modes. They also proved critical for intelligence-gathering and investigations. “Being able to provide information confidentially to police through different social media sites has increased the amount of tips received,” says Drummond.
“On the flip side to that, people have a tendency to have tunnel vision when posting things on sites, feeling faceless and untraceable. It is with those postings that we were able to use our talent and use the information posted to our advantage. It allowed our officers to monitor public sites that protestors were using to share information.”
Battilana adds, “The tips that came in before and during [the summits] were hit or miss. Some were factual and some were not. We still managed to follow up on all the information we received.
“It definitely became more of a challenge for the PACT the closer to the summit we got. As the summit was more on the public’s mind, we’d end up with more and more social media activity. Hence, we really had to focus on disseminating the incoming information.”
How physical locations impacted communication
Two complicating factors: first, PACT staff were not all located in Toronto; they were also posted in the Ontario cities of Barrie and Huntsville. Second, Drummond notes that with regard to Huntsville and Toronto particularly, communications had to take into account very different demographics.
“Toronto, being a very urban setting, the majority of the population is tech savvy and the use of social media is much more prevalent,” she explains. “Huntsville, however, is a smaller town, where the population is older and reliant on traditional forms of media such as TV, radio and print.”
To deal with such disparate modes of communication, police went slightly lower tech: the telephone. “We had two phone numbers, one for the media and one for the public,” says Drummond. These calls came into Toronto, where the phones were manned 24 hours. “The responses were coordinated with PACT members in Barrie to maintain continuity with responses given by Toronto media officers and those posted in Huntsville.”
Burrows was one of the officers posted to Toronto. “The call volume was extremely heavy during the summits but during the G20 in particular,” he says. “While maintaining the continuity with a mass team will always be a challenge, our call centre supervisors held regular briefings and we were in constant contact with the ISU communications team leadership to ensure that we were all on the same page at all times.”
Managing communications breakdowns
Drummond says the most frustrating part of her experience involved breakdowns in communication. “Being in a position were you speak on behalf of the ISU is one that comes with the expectation of perfection, which is far from ever happening,” she explains. “No matter how you deliver some information, it will always be scrutinized and twisted.
“The amount to which you are able to control and rectify this, and continue to deliver the message that you want to be heard, is the challenge. Something that I learned very quickly in all of the G20 was how fast people post information, regardless of whether it had been verified or not. You may end up spending a lot of time correcting such postings!”
Roundtable discussions ensured message accuracy, and also helped communicators anticipate questions “to minimize the surprise moments,” says Burrows. “Accuracy always has to win out over immediacy. There is no problem verifying what live media may be showing. It’s obvious by the pictures what is happening.
“The danger is when the media or the public leads the information stream and looks for verification on their perspective, as opposed to deterring the facts and providing the most accurate information from the voices of authority.”
Drummond says that this is an opportunity for an aspect of the job that is most rewarding: “Being misquoted or having your comments be taken out of context is a great place for social media to step in. When you have written something and posted it publicly reduced the ability to alter your message.”
The worth of social media during large-scale events
Battilana agrees. “In my opinion, I think the PACT definitely achieved our objective of effective communications, in relation to a social media perspective. As more news agencies started to continuously follow us via social media as the summit drew near, we were able to have more of an influence on what the media were portraying.
“An example being people tweeting that the security fence was breached at a specific location, which then showed up on a certain news channel. Once we looked up the location referenced in the tweet, we realized that the location didn’t even have a security fence present. So, we tweeted that there was no fence breach occurring, as there was no fence at that location, and the news updated their report.”
This, Battilana adds, typifies how social media proved its worth. “I’ve seen people try to quantify the exact return on investment of social media when planning, and I believe this is why some people don’t believe in its influence,” he says.
“If we could achieve these types of results in regards to the G8 /G20 and what the mainstream media was reporting on in the matter of a week, just imagine what continued success we could have in the future. All it takes is someone with the courage and vision to see the true benefits of social media and to have the right people execute the plan accordingly.”
Drummond agrees. “Having a well established following, experienced and knowledgeable communicators, and a Service that recognizes the value in social media and its importance was key to the success of social media during the summits of 2010,” she says.
“Without the experience and following that both Tim and Scott have as figures in law enforcement, I don’t think we would have been as successful in reaching so many people and engaging them in dialogue or just making people aware of preparations and planning.”
To these thoughts adds Burrows: “One important point to remember is that there will always be members of society that don’t agree with anything that law enforcement does. That becomes intensified and multiplied with political events.
“It is paramount to recognize that you will never be able to appease everyone. The difference between five years ago and today is that social media have made it possible for those people to gather together on line and increase their voice and their position. Law enforcement must do the same, work together, increase our voice and always present the truth with accuracy and transparency.”
How well will you understand officers in other agencies when you need each other?
Fifteen years ago when I was a police Explorer in New Hampshire, I remember quite a debate over using 10 codes vs. plain English. 10 codes protected information from nosy reporters and civilians; plain English was less confusing for emergency responders, especially during incidents requiring multi-jurisdictional response.
All are arguments coming up yet again, as some agencies debate over whether to switch to plain English radio communications. In the years following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, as this NPR story points out, many have already switched; this PoliceOne.com article furthermore points out:
In December 2006 the National Incident Management System (NIMS) issued an alert mandating that first responders use plain language in multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency response. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) established the Plain Language Working Group in April 2009.
While your target audience may understand specialized language, acronyms, and regional slang it is important to remember that they will not be the only ones looking at what you create. Not communicating using common terms will limit the ability for your message to be understood by a broader audience.
Jargon is easy to slip into for a variety of reasons. You can’t think of how else to describe something, or you’re talking to someone else who you know (or think you know) will understand what you mean, or – subconsciously – you may even be trying to show you belong to a certain group.
But think about the points raised by former prosecutor and trainer Val Van Brocklin in this Officer.com article about cops “talking funny” on the stand. “When you talk like that,” she writes, “you sound like somebody who’s full of himself or who’s trying to hide the truth in a mountain of syllables – both are stereotypes we do NOT need to be reinforcing with jurors.”
Making the switch
Transitioning to plain English has been difficult for law enforcement agencies. It’s been talked about for at least 15 years if not longer, took five years after 9/11 for NIMS to create a directive, and another three years after that for the OEC to establish the working group.
So don’t expect to be able to to use it right away in your blog or podcast. It may even seem unnatural after years of speaking an almost legalese-type “language.” But do practice. Van Brocklin’s approach: practice with flash cards. Write one jargon phrase on the front, and a plain-English phrase on the back. Practice with your spouse or even a child.
For a blogger, though, this may not be enough. Certainly, the spoken word can reinforce the written, and vice versa. But if you plan to write regularly, you should practice writing too.
Creative writing teachers sometimes give an exercise: write something from the point of view of a person who is explaining an incident to their best friend, their mother, their spouse, their boss, a group of strangers, and yes, the police.
The exercise is meant to put a writer more solidly into the mind of the character he’s writing. But for a blogger, it should put you more solidly in your reader’s minds. Because you’re writing (or podcasting) for all those people, to get them to really think about what you say, you need to speak in terms they understand best.
How often do you slip into jargon? Can you practice “plain English” at least once per day?
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?
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.
Cops are taught, by and large, to steer clear of the media. The PIO or a commanding officer handles them at critical incidents, and “regular” cops must get permission before speaking to reporters.
So what happens when an untrained officer finds himself in a media interview? Some (I speak from experience) do a great job. Others, like Crowley, find themselves so severely disadvantaged that if this were a street fight, they’d be in the gutter. As Baron writes:
What did he do wrong. One, he said he wasn’t going to say anything–then he said exactly what they hoped he would…. He kept engaging them–they did a great job, just like a good telemarketer, of keeping him engaged. You could see his guard dropping further and further and then they went in for the kill: will you apologize. And that’s where he made his headline-creating mistake. He not only said no, emphatically no, in effect hell no, he said he never would and when asked if it meant losing his job, he spoke for his department by saying it ain’t going to happen, won’t ever happen.
What does this have to do with social media?
In my opinion, the more officers are familiar with people and how they transmit information among one another online, the better they will understand what people are looking for and how they want to receive it.
Notice, by the way, that I didn’t say officers have to engage with people. It’s preferable, of course—to become part of information dissemination—but I’d argue that simply watching works too. It’s like how constant reading teaches a writer how to write, almost via osmosis. You learn to figure out why something clicks for you, how sentence structure and word choice and many other “tricks” come together to form truly great writing.
Why is this important? Because pure information sharing is a different form of communication than what most cops are used to. It’s not about getting people to explain their problems, or obey your instructions. It’s finding out what’s going on. Not unlike getting incident data via CAD, in some ways.
Authentic communication promotes authority
Even more importantly, however, social media can help non-media-trained officers learn how to channel a quality that’s lacking in most “canned” media interviews: authenticity. This is a point, in fact, that Baron brings up in a blog entry from three years ago:
The point is to be effective you have to be open and honest, trustworthy, responsive and communicate effectively the messages important to your organization, and do this while being totally yourself. The ones who do very well at this succeed on all counts. But it ain’t necessarily easy.
These values are inherent in social media. Marketers and public relations people who help businesses learn social media talk constantly about authenticity, honesty, responsiveness, being yourself even when representing your organization. These are perhaps, then, the most important takeaways for law enforcement officers.
Not many officers will end up in Sgt. Crowley’s position, but in an age where information is expected as rapidly as it’s demanded, preparation isn’t a bad thing. No, you don’t want officers at an incident scene all telling their own versions of what’s happening. There’s a reason the current model works.
And social media cannot be a substitute for proper media training, just as social media-savvy officers shouldn’t be chosen as PIOs just because they “get” the online culture. As Baron points out, it takes the right mix of personality and communication skills along with training.
Still, the shift commanders and supervisors need to be better prepared. “No comment” doesn’t cut it anymore; people think you’re covering something up. Also, future PIOs will come out of this crop of officers. The more officers have the chance to learn how to talk to the public—via the media or not—the stronger the pool administrators have to pull from.