Monday last week was something of a first for me. Instead of writing about public relations and social media, I talked about it – to a roomful of about 160 public information officers, media relations officers, command staff and others involved with police information dissemination.
The venue: the 2-day Advanced Strategic Communications Seminar, “Social Media and Policing in the Digital Age,” of the BCACP-hosted Police Leadership 2011 Conference. The topic: “A Survey of Official and Unofficial Law Enforcement Twitter Accounts in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.”
The original plan was to divide the talk in half. Lead researcher and coauthor Laura Madison would present an overview of the study and its findings, and I would follow up with a short discussion on the floor about how the conference participants might put (or already were putting) this stuff to work for themselves.
Laura couldn’t make it, but thanks to her fantastic Prezi (below), I was able to deliver her half of the presentation with no trouble. If this is the first you’ve seen it, please find our study so you can follow along.
My half of the presentation involved an interactive session, in which I asked conference participants to talk about their experiences in context of what we’d studied and presented:
We didn’t have a ton of time for an in-depth discussion, but I believe it was enough for participants to think about. Some highlights:
The force of personality
One of the most important questions involved the balance between humor/personality and official business. Both I and keynote Deputy Chief Constable Gordon Scobbie (who, as social media lead for UK police, has a wealth more experience than I do) tried to explain in context of Twitter accounts like @TrafficServices and @SuptPayneWMP, but this probably could have taken an entire session in itself!
Suffice to say, feeds that read like they’re off the screens of computer aided dispatch systems are boring. To draw out the old analogy of a cocktail party, a CAD-like feed is the equivalent of some guy standing in the corner droning. He may think his information is necessary and important, but no one else will.
The bottom line is to make the information compelling, to mix official messaging with a personal view of police work. While it’s pat to say “have a conversation,” we see accounts that do this quite well – both from individual officers and from official agency accounts.
Social crime reporting
Another participant asked about crime reporting via social media. The upshot: have a policy. Whether you accept crime reports via social channels or not, you need to communicate this clearly to your fans and followers. Very few of the accounts we studied actually did this, though a few told their followers to call 911 or Crime Stoppers with incident reports and tips.
Additionally, the policy you create should be fluid enough to change. Whether your agency adds social media officers over time, enabling you and them to take social crime reports; or conversely, that social crime reports are overwhelming, your policy (and the training and communication that go with it) should adapt accordingly.
(Want to read more about social crime reporting? I wrote about it in the Winter 2011 issue of the National White Collar Crime Center’s Informant.)
The Twitter conversation
While all this was going on, naturally, there was a conversation happening on Twitter. Using the hashtag #plc2011van, conference participants talked with (and were retweeted by) others who were off-site.
One conversation that stuck out: a chat I had following the conference, with a web manager in England. Sasha Taylor chairs the National Police Web Managers Group, and he contributed some thoughts to an element of Laura’s and my presentation: when police tweeters engage in “endless self-congratulatory tweeting.”
The point I was trying to make: that it is important for an agency to tell its own story, especially if its relationship with the media has not been good… but not at its community’s expense. It’s important to listen and understand how the public – especially, as Sasha pointed out, those who have been victims or do not get service due to service priorities – view the police department, before telling the story. Otherwise, the attempts at engagement will only drive a bigger wedge between public and police.
Neither, however, should listening take precedence over engagement, as Sasha also noted. Only through engagement can a police department fully understand how it is viewed. While I don’t recommend only using Twitter for this purpose, I do think it’s a good and convenient platform for those who use it, and should be treated as such.
Have you read the study? How would you respond to the questions Laura and I posed?