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Stretching resources for social media

Image: <a href=A recent (June 16) Twitter post from @MountainViewPD caught my eye: “MVPD Followers: Please do not do @replies to the MVPD tweets. We do not have the resources to respond to them in a timely manner.”

Yowza. Twitter is a conversation medium; how can you want to avoid conversation? Yet a look at MVPD’s Web site shows that it is, in fact, committed to receiving public feedback. From its online forms to a long list of contact names and e-mail addresses for the agency, it’s clear that they aren’t trying to avoid us.

As MVPD public information officer Liz Wylie explains, “The main problem was that people were actually trying to report crimes via that medium, which we can’t have happen…. And since it is only me who handles Twitter for the PD, I don’t want people thinking that I read them every day, or even every week.  99.999% of what was in the @reply box was either spam or inappropriate for Twitter.”

In all fairness, many police departments lack the personnel to commit to social media. Administrators may be unsure of its real value to law enforcement, as well as concerned over liability issues. And, as marketer Mack Collier points out, peer pressure isn’t enough to drive a social media program.

Collier is speaking to businesses when he asks, “Do your customers use social media?” For law enforcement, that answer is a resounding yes. The agencies with Facebook and Twitter pages are there because it’s a convenient way to get information out to the citizens they serve, and to talk with them a little too.

Doing more with less… and more

In the business world, a recent survey showed that only 9% of respondents believed public relations should “own” social media within companies. Though most believed it should be the domain of the sales/marketing folks, nearly a third thought it was a shared responsibility among all departments within a company.

So. Should the PIO share social networking responsibilities with a social media team—a group of volunteer officers who can each take a slice of the pie?

The PIO would provide press releases and Nixle or Twitter updates. Photos of community events, meanwhile, might fall to a community relations officer, while tips on Internet safety, personal safety, and home security could be offered by a detective or two. An administrator might post information on recruitment or political issues between department and city council.

Drawing from the community

There’s another option, one that might work in conjunction with an agency’s own social media team: allowing the public to help. Consider three communities in Texas: Houston, Austin and San Antonio, for which two civilians—on their own time and with their own funds—use public information to keep Twitter feeds updated.

Why? Jordan Ghawi, a firefighter/EMT in a small department near San Antonio, was quoted as saying: “For the first responders, if people see these feeds, they are going to change their routes and make the area not as congested. I really think what we’re providing is a great service to the cities we are posting, too.”

He himself had been receiving SMS (text) messages regarding emergencies to his cell phone, but as collaborator Paul Voccio notes, “While this worked on a small scale, we realized if we were to make this available to a wider audience, SMS was not the way to go.”

So Ghawi and Voccio began to post to @SanAntonioFire and @SanAntonioPD around late January. “Twitter seemed the best alternative to a real time status message to a wide audience,” says Voccio. “A few days later I had some scripts running doing the updates. Other cities came online as we found their CAD (computer aided dispatch) systems.”

The “bios” for each page make it clear that they are unofficial. Yet the information, though Ghawi and Voccio have never gotten official permission to maintain these pages (which include @HoustonPolice, @HoustonFire, @AustinTraffic, and @AustinFire), is entirely official.

“No one has approached me in an official capacity to discuss what we’re doing,” says Voccio, “but I have been approached by people who work in the San Antonio City IT dept wanting to know how we were doing it. They thought we had gained access to their backend systems. I then pointed out that they publish this information on a public website. That sorta ended the questions as to where we got the data.

“Since we essentially screenscrape their department’s public pages, it’s already public domain when we grab it. We do filter some of the redundant data, such as minor car accidents or other benign calls. In our first day with SAPD, we tweeted a few hundred tweets of fenderbenders ,which annoyed everyone including ourselves. With a bit of tweaking it settled down and has been maintenance free until lately.”

It’s not a perfect system; Voccio says no infrastructure exists to disseminate information more quickly. “I think most departments aren’t ready for this yet given the misunderstanding of how we were getting the information in the first place,” he adds.

“[However] I think the number of followers we have on each of the accounts shows that the public is interested in this information and we can provide it to then cheaply and reliably just using just a bit of scripting.”

Deciding what’s appropriate for your agency

How do you figure out first whether to have an online presence, and then what kind of time and resources to commit to it? A community survey may be a good start. Even so, as Wylie points out, “We 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).

“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…. I keep coming back to the idea that, while social networking is, indeed, popular, we have a massive group of people in this city who aren’t using that technology. I would be catering to a small group when compared to our entire population. I feel a responsibility to dedicate my time across the board, focusing more of my time on the methods that reach out to the most people, not just the ones that are the most modern or technologically advanced and hip.”

As Collier suggests, assuming the agency needs a social network presence (this can be accomplished by surveying the community), figuring out what it will take should come next—before the agency commits resources it doesn’t have.

How did your agency determine what was right for its community? How else might a police department stretch thin resources to reach out to its community online?

Image: fazen via Flickr

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Preliminaries… What can we do internally

domain-name-registration Starting the process was a 2 year proposition. 2 YEARS!

In 2004, I registered our agency’s domain name. It was recommended I go through a particular company who used Network Solutions. I didn’t have a problem with that but I knew they were more expensive than most registrars. But ok. It made life simple for the folks I was having to work with. We paid for 9 years of registration.

About a year after we registered the domain, I received a bill from this company for $120.00 for Domain Name services. I questioned this with the city webmaster but lost track of our conversation. I honestly don’t remember if we every discussed it directly or not.

In 2007, an administrator within the agency and I started talking about our current HTML based website. Neither of us were “feeling it” any longer. At the time I developed the site, late 2003 and 2004, it was pretty close to cutting edge. As close as I could get with the equipment I had to work with anyway.

I started exploring different options.

Some of my goals were

  • Individual units would be able to edit their own sections of the site
  • It would be simple to use
  • Non technical personnel would be able to add content
  • Content would be syndicated
  • Content would be live, up to the minute
  • Site would be pleasing to look at
  • Site would allow direct access to unit commanders

Then I hit a wall. Our equipment would not support some of the functions (most) I needed to incorporate. But beyond that, some of our technical engineers would not allow some of the backend software I needed to be loaded.

I found a way around it.  But it was completely unconventional.  More later.

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