Sitting in this room full of street cops, chiefs, information officers, detectives, and communications experts at the Social Media for Law Enforcement (SMILE) conference, one might conclude that everyone is plugged in to Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and podcasts. With “Web 2.0” the main topic of discussion everyone, you might think that everyone in the public safety field is on the same page when it comes to social media.
While a few select departments have really immersed themselves in the social networking world, most departments across the nation are slow to get on board. If you work for an agency that is hesitant — maybe even scared — to embrace sites like Facebook and Twitter, or if your department hasn’t updated its Web site since 2005, you know what I’m talking about.
We’ve posted articles on PoliceOne throughout the past year about why social media is important, how to start engaging with your community using social media tools, best practices, and even tips for managing your own personal social networking sites. There have been countless news articles crediting YouTube and Facebook with helping cops nab criminals.
At SMILE, police officers are hammering home the message that social media is the only way community policing will survive in the future.
The blue wave of change
Do you really need to pay attention to the hype of social media? Mike Bostic, former LAPD Deputy Chief, says absolutely yes. Bostic, who is now part of Raytheon’s Civil Communication Solutions group, says that agencies need to start adapting to the notion of getting information “from each other rather than from institutions.”
So what makes social networking more appealing than traditional methods of communicating to your public? Well, you can use social media to establish a two-way conversation between your agency and the public with instant feedback. Using Twitter and Facebook, you can reach anyone with a smart phone. Departments can raise awareness through public safety ads posted to a YouTube channel. Through a blog, your chief can directly address the community about local crime trends, emergency planning, and more.
The changing face of community policing — which many agencies are referring to as the “blue wave of change” — is forcing many departments to adopt a mission statement that outlines their goals or purpose for addressing the public through social media.
Engaging the public
Boca Raton (FL) Police Chief Dan Alexander advises agencies to engage as much as possible with citizens interested in the department’s online efforts.
“One of the pitfalls of social media is that some departments use it as a mechanism to self-promote. Recognize that communication has to be genuine and two-way,” Alexander says. “Ask yourself, ‘What are we putting out there? How will we respond to backlash or questions?’”
Sergeant Tim Burrows, of the Toronto Police Services, agrees that the true secret to social media is engagement.
“Don’t just spit information out there,” Burrows says. “You need to give feedback. Social media is really about conversations that are made richer and more convenient through the Internet.”
Burrows identifies five resources that agencies need to consider before (and during!) they start a social networking a plan:
1. Time: Decide how much time you want to spend on social media outlets before committing to them. Once you start putting information out there on a regular basis, your public might develop expectations. Plan on meeting those expectations.
2. Money: Social media can cost you nothing, or it can cost you thousands. You can decide to forge ahead on your own, or you can hire a PR consultant to develop a social media plan and train your information officers. Don’t dismiss social media just because it’s free — in fact, you should be embracing it because of its flexible nature.
3. Equipment: Social media uses simple, inexpensive tools that your department often already has available. Computers, smart phones, and cameras can all cost you under $500.
4. Knowledge: Your department needs to develop policies that help, not hinder, social media interaction. Officers engaging with the public need to listen, communicate, and network so that they know what their public is after.
5. Personnel: Encourage your officers to be motivated, caring, courageous, and above all, engaged.
Branding your department: Boca Raton case study
At Boca Raton PD, Chief Alexander has taken social media to a new level. The agency has merged their social networking strategy with an overall community policing project called VIPER, which stands for Visibility, Intelligence, Partnerships, Education, and Resources. VIPER engages with the community through video, Twitter, Facebook, crime maps, and Nixle emergency alerts.
Basically, the VIPER website has become a hotbed for community interaction, allowing the department to really connect with the public they serve and protect. Alexander calls this department branding, and says that agencies “need to build support for survival.”
He gives a few suggestions for how other agencies can build that support:
• Know the difference between public relations and marketing: Public relations builds support for your department — marketing allows you to research community behavior to better enhance public safety.
• Develop a strategy: Whether it’s hiring a PR firm or using seized dollars to overhaul your website design, think about the best way to finance your media campaign.
• Don’t go it alone...ask the community: People want to connect with their officers in a meaningful way, and it’s okay to ask them what they’re interested. Hold focus groups to see what the public wants to hear about from the department — Boca Raton PD held five sessions with 40 people, talking to everyone from CrimeWatch organizations to locals eating at the mall.
• Social media as a force multiplier: Social media requires very little investment up front, but there’s an unknown return on that investment. You can bet your department will want to develop a way to check on that return — identify what types of sites you want to use (Twitter? Facebook? Both?) and figure out the people who will be responsible for those sites.
Overall, the branding process will allow your agency to organize disparate community programs and disjointed communication strategies into one mission.
Let your hair down
Perhaps one of the best things about social media is how it creates a personal connection between officers and the community. Police suddenly shift from a group that might be feared to a group that’s approachable and friendly. Using social media platforms gives officers a lot more freedom — gone are the days when officers deliver wordy press releases for the media to interpret (or misinterpret, as is often the case).
“One of the advantages of social media is that we can let our hair down,” explains Alexander. “This is our opportunity to be more real, and at the same time engage in a dialogue.”
However, there’s a fine line between letting your hair down and letting it all hang out. How do you choose what to reveal? And when? And through what medium first? Social media can be confusing in that officers suddenly have so many outlets to choose from, rather than just the local media press conference.
“This is a huge issue – one that Boca Raton Police Department deals with daily within our agency,” Alexander says. “We realize that it’s going to be an ongoing dispute. Cops are always going to be reticent to put information out there, it just in their nature.”
Although officers might hesitate to reveal all the information about a crime scene or officer-involved shooting after the fact, it is important that the public see they are making a comment about highly publicized events.
We live in an environment where the breaking news story in a local paper might not have all of the facts, but the media is going to run with it anyway. In those cases, it’s integral for departments to release information before the media skews the details.
Alexander concludes, “Over time, everyone’s going to get used to the pace of social media — it’s a reality. Police officers need to make the decision of whether or not they want to put information out there on their own terms.”