I recently blogged about “expert branding” and how it could help a police department’s overall mission by drawing on officers’ experience and taking some of the informational weight off the PIO’s shoulders.
Around the time I was writing the post, I noticed Lt. Kristen Ziman (@Lt_KZ on Twitter) was tweeting some pretty funny stuff. I also realized that her blog, Think Different, has a lot of personality to it. Most importantly of all, I saw that she wasn’t hiding behind a pseudonym, as many officers do, and her agency’s location was out there for everyone to see.
Contacting her via Twitter, I asked: are you the department PIO? How did you get to be its voice?
“No,” she responded, “I am not the PIO of the Aurora Police Department. We already have a brilliant and competent man who does that job (Dan Ferrelli).”
So what was up with the blog, and the tweeting?
“About a year and a half ago,” Ziman told me, “I asked the Chief if I could implement an ‘ask the police officer’ column where residents could write in questions on topics of interest to them. The Chief gave me the green light and Dan Ferrelli got the ball rolling with our local newspaper.
“It quickly evolved into more than a question and answer column and it became the police ‘voice’ on controversial topics in policing (police brutality, search and seizure, us vs. them mentality, police suicide, etc.). It got enough positive feedback that the newspaper has continued to run it on a bi-weekly basis…. My blog is simply a copy of all the columns that run in the Beacon and those are approved by [the Chief] before print.”
“I joined Twitter just before the boom of subscribers,” says Ziman. “In our department/city, we have W.I.G.S. (Wildly Important Goals). Each division head must come up with goals that must be achieved each year. As the Shift Commander of midnights, I thought Twitter would be a neat way for the officers to follow our progress instead of waiting for my bi-weekly reports to come out.
“Unfortunately, only 4 or 5 guys started following me. The rest looked at me funny and continued to say, ‘What is Twitter again?’. Despite my persistence, that idea never panned out. Instead, I started following police officers from other agencies (and vice versa).
“So technically, I’m not the voice of the police department on Twitter. I just speak for me and for my shift and try to combine my individual persona with my professional one.”
The social media team
Ziman’s column/blog offers an alternative to the traditional structured information “push” to the community, not just in and of itself, but also in the way she works with the chief and the PIO to make sure everyone’s interests are served.
The model works so well that more departments need to consider implementing “social media teams,” groups composed of several department members with interest in representing the agency on the Internet. “Our department has 301 sworn officers (not including civilian employees) and only 1 PIO,” Ziman explains. “Our PIO can barely take a day off without being bombarded if a major incident occurs. For that reason alone, there should be more than one designated person responsible for updating information and responding to the public in these venues.”
Logical choices are school resource and DARE officers, detectives who specialize in the kinds of offenses—identity theft, or domestic violence—that demand public outreach in the name of prevention, and even administrators who seek a dialogue with the public over budgetary or policy issues.
The biggest element? Trust. “I never actually asked the Chief if I could Twitter ,” says Ziman. “I do believe he trusts that I would never disparage our police department and I am very careful to keep my tweets professional. I don’t verbalize my political beliefs or any other personal viewpoints that would not be in line with our mission.”
A good social media policy, such as the one created by the U.S. Air Force, helps manage outgoing messages and makes it easier for administrators to trust the team members transmitting them. It also ensures consistency, a critical element in public trust.
“I have noticed that citizens from my community and other City of Aurora employees are following me [on Twitter] so I think it adds to my goal of bridging the police and the community,” Ziman says. “For some citizens (who don’t break the law), my column is the only “contact” they have with a police officer. My hope is that is humanizes ALL police officers and the residents learn that we are more alike than we are different.”