But the key word is “broadcast.” Social media enthusiasts are quick to point out that “it’s all about the relationship.” Communication is a two-way street; companies, for instance, no longer advertise—they build trust.
And police already do enough broadcasting. Traditional TV and newspaper media, for instance, work well for getting information out about both emergencies and community events and issues.
So why should a police department use a one-way tool like Nixle? Because it can be a critical first step in another important aspect of social media: engaging community members where they are—online, via their cell phones, even via email.
As Tyrone, Ga. Police Chief Brandon Perkins wrote in his Nixle review, not only will citizens listen to what you’re saying; they’ll seek you out because they want to know. And it will inspire future positive interaction.
Following up on Chief Perkins’ blog entry, which he graciously allowed me to cross-post on Cops 2.0, I talked a bit about it with him.
What Nixle is for
Police tweets commonly have to do with traffic problems, including crashes and closures; public information, such as crime patterns; and police log-type postings. The problem is, Twitter tends to crash. The “fail whale” that tells us “Twitter is over capacity” means that a lot of people stand to miss out on critical information.
And that means Twitter—for all its cutting-edge importance to those of us in the business world—can hurt a police department. Fail whale in the middle of a hostage situation or weather crisis? The public would wonder why you chose such an unstable medium, why something better doesn’t exist. And that can hurt long-term community relations as easily as twittering cops can help it.
Enter Nixle, a self-described Community Information Service built on the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS) platform. There are no “fail whales” with Nixle; it boasts a 99.99% uptime. Unlike NLETS, however, the easy-to-use interface requires no in-depth training.
As Perkins points out, Nixle isn’t just for emergencies. “We are using Nixle for community relations as well,” he says. “They have different levels for messages: Alerts, Advisories, Community, and Traffic.”
140-character community relations
If Nixle is a one-way tool, how is it possible to use for community relations—a two-way street? Moreover, how does it apply on the Internet, where communication is much more laid-back, less official than talking to a uniform or on the phone?
For starters, Nixle does integrate with Twitter. And its easy-to-read interface makes it crystal clear what kind of message is being broadcast. “The community messages can be used to send pretty much any kind of message,” says Perkins.
So how to encourage two-way communication? “I think posting regular community messages on Nixle and encouraging citizens to interact via email and Twitter would be necessary,” says Perkins, though he adds, “Believe me, if an agency uses Nixle to provide info, they WILL get feedback from their citizens—I’ve only posted [a few] messages and have received several positive emails about it.”
Thus far, Nixle interfaces only with Twitter, not Facebook or MySpace (though the company is actively soliciting suggestions for changes). However, Twitter interfaces with Facebook via RSS; so a Nixle post automatically going to Twitter would then go to Facebook.
Nixle’s contact information block is limited to one website, but TPD’s site is social-friendly: citizens are encouraged to sign up for both Nixle and the department’s RSS feed, follow on Twitter, and of course contact police personnel.
Media relations and critical incidents
A recent Twitter case study showed how a strong relationship between a police department’s public information officer (PIO) and reporters is even more crucial in the age of instant information.
“If the local PD is quick to post in order to keep the rumor mill at bay, then Nixle would be a good medium to do it,” says Perkins.
However, “quick to post” is the operative term. “We have been the victim of rumors too many times,” he adds. “I am adamant to my people that we are going to use Nixle to advise the citizens as often as possible after [field supervisors] are trained.”
In fact, Perkins anticipates that it will be easy to train the supervisors. “When you log into Nixle, there is a simple entry field [with a] button where you select the message type. Choose one and type your message and it then sends e-mail, SMS, Twitter posts, and creates a static online entry for you.”
Too easy? “Other chiefs say things to me about the amount of information I put out, but we are different generations,” says Perkins. “I am not willing to sit back and allow false allegations against my people, nor will I sit on something my citizens need to know I prefer to get the information in the open before they have time to ask. I think posting 24/7 as needed is what will make an agency the most effective; the stuff don’t hit the fan only between 8 and 5.”
But Perkins acknowledges that field supervisors’ posts will be limited to emergencies only, and that other items will be filtered. Training will involve not only how to use Nixle, but will also include scenarios. Initial training will be one-on-one, and will use the Nixle demo account to enable supervisors to get used to the system.
Finally, says Perkins, “I am set up to get posts, so I will know immediately if a problem exists and can take action.” Policy will also be an important part of the system. “[It] will cover various situations where use is approved and sample posts.”
He adds: “A lot of this is trust based. I think that is hard to swallow for some, but I think you train [supervisors] the best you can and give them access to the tools. We trust them with guns, cars, and the ability to arrest. Why not with providing vital info to citizens?”
The shallow end of the pool
Overall, Nixle may be just the “shallow end of the pool” that police chiefs need as they begin to wade into social media for their agencies. To be able to broadcast information on a level and in terms their citizens can understand would, in Perkin’s words, make such an agency “a real hero to their people.”
It would also provide a cushion such that administrators could begin to refine public information policies, duties, etc. for agencies that don’t have dedicated PIOs, or have limited public information going out.
However, says Perkins, “I also see it building momentum and becoming a ‘household’ name soon also—it is backed by too many widely recognized organizations, and they are going to be pushing it.” To illustrate his point, he points out that while TPD is just the 16th law enforcement agency in the U.S. to go live with Nixle, 600 more are in the process of becoming certified to use or test the system.
That makes it important for administrators to recognize that Nixle is but one channel in the wider social-media spectrum. Rather than use it as an excuse to hold off on learning Twitter and Facebook, administrators should look at it as a gateway.
“[Nixle] certainly wants to be part of social media, or they wouldn’t have offered Twitter integration from the get-go,” says Perkins. “Part of their material talks about social media, but states that it is not a secure platform, hence their partnership with NLETS.”
Perkins sums up his Nixle early adoption in terms of three reasons: “1. I have been using four platforms to deliver one message, 2. other all-in-one platforms are expensive, and 3. I am a huge advocate of public interaction. Nixle ties it all together at no cost and it is a secure and reliable platform.”