Every police administrator knows what damage the wrong YouTube video, tweet, or Facebook status update can do. The public seems drawn to “stupid cop tricks,” and it’s never long before the media find out.
Once that happens, it’s all over. The media grill administrators for answers. Because an internal investigation is probably ongoing, there are none. Media and public alike assume there’s a coverup. The public loses trust in the police, who go on the defensive. Community relations suffers as street cops hide in their cruisers to avoid the criticism.
“What were they thinking?” is usually the response to an inappropriate social network posting. Short answer: they weren’t. Why? Because they weren’t thinking the same way an administrator thinks. Why? Because they’re not administrators? That’s a start. But it goes much deeper than that.
They weren’t thinking because they were more focused on the moment: taking a picture that would get them “points,” or venting their frustrations about a fact of a cop’s life.
Because that’s the whole point of social networking: reaching out to others, your “friends,” whenever the mood strikes. Being honest, being transparent, showing you’re human and you suffer the same little trials everyone else does. Showing you’re not above them, showing you’re with them.
That’s worth considering. People show up for PR train wrecks because they like to see authority figures come down. Whether it’s a way of getting some back after a traffic ticket, or just because we all feel a little inadequate, seeing the powerful humbled is, well, validating. We feel a little better about our own shortcomings when we see everyone else has them too.
So the key isn’t to crack down on social media usage, ban it outright and closely monitor employees’ personal accounts. Not by any stretch. The key is to show them how they can be human and still be professional.
Social media use does not lend itself to a laundry list of “don’ts.” That’s because it’s inherently out of organizational control. Certainly, it is a good start to construct social media training around conduct policies, help officers start to think critically about what they post online.
But it’s only a start. Officers are still going to use these sites. They’re still going to want to talk about work; law enforcement isn’t just a job, after all, but part of many cops’ identities.
Some officers will prefer only to hang out in an online “bar,” of sorts, talking in safely restricted forums about their work. For that, I recommend OfficerResource.com, a forum whose moderators personally vet every applicant to its LE-only areas.
But others will see the potential for using social media to build their careers. Some people call it “personal branding.” I don’t like this term; when I hear “brand” I think Pepsi or Ford. Loyalty to a brand might be part of a person’s identity, but human relationships are formed and maintained differently.
I prefer to think in terms of “outstanding” professionals. PoliceOne.com makes reference to “5 percenters,” those officers who are exceptional performers in any situation whether tactical or mundane, who respond the right way because they’ve trained themselves to do so.
Put a 5 percenter online—or show 10-, 15-, or 20-percenters how to act online the same way they should wearing the badge in the real world—and you turn a potential liability into a very powerful tool. Officers who are allowed to tell their stories responsibly and respectfully accomplish a number of things:
- They show community members what it is they’re doing behind the restricted-access areas of the police station.
- They inform and educate about misunderstood or important topics to the community.
- They reinforce the perception that they’re part of a professional team, both the agency and their own unit.
Part of the reason I’ve been absent from blogging over the last few weeks is that, among my other work, I’ve been building: a redesigned website that focuses on exactly the services I provide.
My focus is on “content creation and strategy” for the law enforcement and digital forensics communities. In essence, that means helping clients and/or customers to find and tell their stories strategically, through tactics like blogging, podcasting, and so forth.
My new blog, “The Outstanding Investigator,” will cover the kinds of concepts I just wrote about above. I hope you’ll subscribe to it—the content is as free there as it is here—and if you’re interested in what I have to offer, please let me know that too.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to blog here at Cops 2.0, perhaps less frequently, but still with the broader look at social media in law enforcement that I’ve always taken. Happy New Year, and thanks for being part of my world!
Image: soulmuser via Flickr