Last week I talked about the importance of “listening” to your community, including taking into account a variety of factors about the community itself. It won’t be the last I discuss this topic, but I wanted to take some time to examine what Boca Raton PD is doing with all that data.
Chief Dan Alexander, who blogs at BocaChiefBlog.com and tweets as @bocachief, talked with me about the Boca VIPER program as a branded crime prevention strategy. Granted, BRPD hired a public relations firm to help with branding… but even this itself was a response to realizing that community needs were bigger than the agency could accomplish on its own. As Alexander put it, “We needed to market, but cops don’t market very well.”
What were those needs? For starters, “listening” doesn’t just mean watching what is being said about you. From a law enforcement standpoint, it also means crime and calls-for-service analysis.
BRPD found from its number-crunching that the bulk of its crimes were being committed by people from outside the community. In addition, says Alexander, while community support for its police was high, and a number of programs had already been put in place to address problems, none of it was part of a cohesive strategy.
So Kaye Communications, a local PR firm, helped with conceptualizing and developing the new brand.
Branding crime prevention: Boca VIPER
The five elements of the Boca VIPER brand form the comprehensive crime-prevention strategy the department had been moving toward all along. As Alexander explains, these are “independent elements that overlap”:
- Visibility allows people to see the police and connect with their brand.
- Intelligence shows the importance of information, and how the community is impacted by “outside forces.”
- Partnerships with local businesses and organizations help improve the agency’s reach.
- Education via traditional and Internet-based media involve the public in crime prevention.
- Resources including officer training, facility improvement, and operational tactics keep police constantly improving.
Where social media fits
As public relations professionals constantly remind each other, marketers, salespeople, and others, social media is not a strategy unto itself. Rather, it needs to be integrated into a broader communications strategy that includes all the different roles in an organization
At BRPD, this is exactly the case. “Social media personalizes us, helps us make a connection to get information to the people who need it,” says Alexander. “It’s logical to realize how social media tools relate to a unique constituency that uses them.”
The main point of social media, which is part of VIPER’s “Education” component, is to drive traffic back to the main VIPER Web pages. The agency has Twitter and Facebook pages (but not MySpace anymore because, as Alexander says, the strategy is constantly being tweaked depending on what works).
The VIPER site itself is being revamped, so that it will now include BRPD’s Twitter feed. The advantage here, says Alexander, is for all citizens—not just media—to be able to see “police blotter”-type information as it happens.
The department is also considering a video feed, which would allow the agency’s PIO to take questions twice a week, while mapping—complete with e-mail alerts—will continue to help citizens look at criminal activity in their own neighborhoods.
Web presences, says Alexander, do not have to be mutually exclusive, and in fact should not be. “These are all different ways to inform, promote transparency,” he says. “We don’t rely too heavily on any one tool because there’s ebb and flow. Instead, we use the tools to draw people to the content.”
Getting the cops involved
There’s listening to the community. Then there’s doing something with that data—creating the tools that allow police to respond to what they’re hearing. And then there’s choosing the people to help promote the overall brand.
Alexander’s blog and Twitter presences go along with the department’s PIO work, but he would like BRPD cops themselves to join in eventually. Officers bring a “unique street-level perspective” to incidents, which is why Alexander believes there is no reason why they can’t use social media together with traditional chains of command.
“It won’t be fast,” he warns, “and information will be filtered—not to keep something away, but to protect everyone involved including officers.” (Arguably, the agency’s openness in advance of a major incident will help critics understand its responsibility to keep some messages filtered.)
Still, getting to that point will be challenging. As Alexander wrote for ConnectedCops.net, five barriers often keep law enforcement from realizing social media’s full benefits. “Social media is wide open, and the idea of getting up close with people doesn’t jive well with who we are as police officers,” he says.
He hopes to start getting officers involved by asking those most comfortable with the technology to lead the way. Even so, the effort will be tricky. “We have to figure out how to control yet also decentralize our message,” he says. “For officers who do connect on a personal level with the public, the trick is helping them learn how to do it officially.”
And so, while his officers aren’t actively resisting the idea, he notes that they seem to be taking a “wait and see” attitude. Thus listening will become as important to them individually as it will to the agency as a whole.
Feedback for Boca VIPER
Indeed, as with any good public relations strategy, listening is still an important part of implementation. Alexander has blogged about feedback he gets, and the department is planning focus groups next month. Surveys helped the crime prevention unit determine what the VIPER site should focus on. For instance, identity theft is set apart on its main page because in Boca Raton, it’s a major concern.
Moreover, says Alexander, “This is a living, breathing process. Our strategy is a function of our connection with a number of different sources.” He likens it, in fact, to Boca Raton’s population itself. “Officially we’re a community of 85,000, but that number can swell to 300,000 during the week,” he says. “You can’t define our population. Likewise, social media allows us not to be isolated within our borders.”
Learning from Boca police
- Listen first. Gather data from multiple sources: residents, business owners, visitors, your agency’s own activity stats.
- Respond. Go where the people are, both online and off, to communicate with them.
- Take it slow. Start with areas that have the most need, as well as the areas you’re most comfortable with.
- Gauge. How are your constituents responding to your efforts?
- Adjust. You don’t have to get it right the first time.
- Broaden. Let feedback and experience guide you toward expanding your reach.