Some law enforcement agencies may be reluctant to jump into social media because they are unsure of how many customers are really online. What’s the point, they reason, if they’re communicating with only a tiny fraction of the population they serve?
It’s a valid point. Committing already-thin resources to something that may not pay off in significant community engagement doesn’t seem to make sense.
–It is hard to say, because we are doing so much to improve the Customer experience throughout the organization, that positive improvement truly highlights all of those efforts. I think the preferred measurement for the C-Suite has been how we have taken what we have learned from Customers and truly improved the experience for all Customers.
–Unlike typical measurements of performance, my team is measured on effectiveness and improvements they make for our Customers. I teach them to be proactive and find solutions to problems they encounter. If something is broken for others they are encouraged to find solutions.
In fact, social media as a means to communicate with small market segments is catching on all over the corporate world. This article detailed the way in which food makers are responding to “a niche the industry would once have dismissed as too small to target profitably.”
Not only are the companies changing their existing products and processes; they’re also investing in new products: “For a while, the larger companies said, ‘We’ll let someone else do it, and then buy them if they’re any good,'” said Bill Bishop, chairman of consulting group Willard Bishop. “Now it’s become evident that you give up too much in opportunity by letting it get developed by the smaller players.”
How long can you afford to wait?
Law enforcement agencies may do well to pay attention. It strikes me that many are, indeed, waiting to see what happens with the neighboring and other agencies using social media to reach out to customers. But civilians are online now, and the social ‘net is constantly changing, growing.
In the 9 months since I’ve been on Twitter, for example, I’ve seen law enforcement use skyrocket from just a handful of agencies and cops to—well, a lot, enough to form communities among patrol officers and digital forensics people and even some of the “official” agency pages, the PIOs who are inclined to follow each other.
While police departments elsewhere turn to Web sites such as Twitter and Facebook, some local chiefs are sticking to automated phone messages as the best way to get fast alerts to many people at once.
“If you want something right away, a Web site isn’t fast enough,” said Ross police Sgt. William Barrett. “Manpower and media are quicker.” Pittsburgh police have used an Internet-based alert system for two years and many departments post information about crimes on municipal Web sites. But officials say phone systems remain most effective.
Ross police are installing a reverse 911 system, an automated system that can make hundreds of calls in a few minutes.
Missing from the article were examples of other agencies that had either made a total switch to Internet-based services, or were using both.
People aren’t just on the phone… or online
A key to social media is that it reaches people where they are. Lots of people are on Facebook and Twitter, and that’s why so many companies and government agencies are there, too. But as marketers point out, Internet marketing isn’t about the tools. It’s always, always about the people.
I commented to the MNW blog: “Doesn’t reverse 911 only work for landlines? I think it is advisable for agencies to use both phone and services like Nixle (which can be pushed to Twitter) – some people have only cell phones and no land lines, and others may prefer text or email alerts (say, a working parent who would want to know what’s going on in their child’s school neighborhood).”
Note that I think both services should be used. I had an eyeopening moment this week when I read in an email from the Mountain View (California) Police Department‘s PIO, Liz Wylie: “[W]e have over 1000 followers on Twitter, but over 75000 people living in this city and a HUGE number who work here (especially given Google’s headquarters is here). [Thus] Twitter is really reaching only a few people within our community and we can not dedicate vast resources to such a specialized tool that only reaches a small segment of our target population.”
Know your community
Clearly, social media tools are not the end-all be-all of community outreach, even as the media hype them. “Reaching the people where they are” doesn’t just include Web-savvy youth; it also includes their elderly grandparents, people with physical disabilities who live independently, poor people, and others whose phone or computer usage is limited—for whatever reason.
This blog post points out that it is very difficult to measure the extent to which social media tools “should” be used, and ultimately is used in conjunction with other traditional means of communication anyway.
So yes, if it will bring value to your public, and you have the resources for it, use reverse 911; it clearly works. So do Nixle, Citizen Observer, Facebook, and Twitter. Make the messages consistent—and use these multiple means to get information out to the largest group of people possible.
When I first read articles about Nixle, I was concerned. Yes, it’s secure and stable, and that alone makes it a vastly better way to broadcast information than using Twitter.
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.
“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.
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.”
Cops 2.0 is looking for guest bloggers! Are you an officer, administrator, or other individual involved with social media in law enforcement? Let us know. We’re interested in what you and/or your department is doing with blogs, Twitter, Facebook/MySpace, wikis, or other applications, whether internally or used to connect with the public.
We’re less interested in how you’re using social networks to investigate crimes, though if you’re doing this in conjunction with online public outreach, we’d like to know how you manage the two.
We are open to your ideas, and look forward to hearing from you!