Law enforcement’s use of social media was one of the major themes during the 2012 International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in San Diego last week.
The overarching message was that law enforcement agencies must engage in social media and can no longer afford to ignore it.
Get started now, was the message during educational session dubbed ‘How Social Media is Changing Crisis Response.’
Twitter is Faster than Television
“Engage in social media before the crisis,” emphasized Captain Mike Parker, PIO of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Similar to the expression: “An emergency is never the time to exchange business cards,” a crisis is also not the time to begin your social media efforts.
Captain Parker is very active in social media — his Twitter account, @mpLASD, has nearly 4,500 followers — and he’s highly engaged with social media because that’s where the news happens. “The news moves so fast, mostly because of Twitter,” he said.
“It used to be that for something to go viral, it would have to be on television for a large number of the public to find out. Now, Twitter is faster than television.”
LASD has recently made a big push to increase its social media monitoring capabilities. On September first, the agency added a third desk to monitor social media activity, 24/7. Prior to this, the department had two sworn personnel dedicated to monitoring news and internal notifications and decided it needed to add a third, tech-savvy, civilian dispatcher to monitor social media activity.
The next phase of the department’s social media efforts will be to train dispatchers at each station to monitor social media traffic.
The Risk of Ignoring Social Media
Frankly, it’s risky for a police department NOT to engage in social media, said Parker. For example, say someone sends out a tweet about a shooting in a residential neighborhood. Not only would police want to know about that immediately, but they also need to be able to quell any panic that may arise on social media channels.
“If we don’t monitor [social media], we’ve been had,” said Parker. “One way we deal with crisis communications is to get on the front end of it.”
Responding quickly — both physically and via social media — can help instill public confidence that the police are aware of, and responding to, the alleged shooting. Being able to deliver updates about the response to the shooting continues to build awareness and helps keep the public aware and informed about the developing situation.
Control Your Message
Social media also gives law enforcement agencies the ability to control their own message in a way they never could before, said Julie Parker, media relations director for Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland. She spent many years as a news reporter and understands the importance of messaging.
She is also very active on social media — her Twitter account, @PGPDJulie — has nearly 3,000 followers.
During the presentation, Parker gave the example about different ways to inform the public of an officer shooting. The department could call someone a “suspect” or they could refer to him/her as an “armed gunman.”
There is a significant difference between those two terms, said Parker, and using the phrase “armed gunman” gives the public a better description of what the police are dealing with. Before social media, the police department would have to call a press conference or contact reporters and tell them about the situation. Then the news media would report the story any way they chose, not necessarily the way the police would want to inform the public.
Now, through social media, “you’re not just sharing with reporters, you’re directly reporting to the community,” Parker said. “They can bypass the media and get information directly through your department.”
The bottom line is that police agencies of all sizes cannot afford to ignore social media any longer. It’s not necessarily difficult or costly — agencies primarily rely on open-source information like Twitter and free online tools to monitor activity — but it does take time and commitment to develop a strong social media presence and monitoring strategies.
But, at the end of the day, agencies can’t afford not to be on social media platforms.
“By not monitoring or not using social media, we would be missing out big time,” said Parker.