Roundtable: How to match your agency’s social media strategy with community needs

Social media is a powerful tool for law enforcement agencies, but engaging on such a public platform without a clear strategy can set an agency up for failure


By P1 Staff

Never have we seen greater acceptance of social media and buy-in among law enforcement agencies than at this moment in time. From patrol officer to police chief, the recognition that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are more help than hindrance continues to grow.”

Julie Parker, communications consultant

(Photo/Pixabay)
(Photo/Pixabay)

Most U.S. adults are accessing social media on a regular basis. Recent stats from the Pew Research Center indicate nearly three-quarters of Americans report using YouTube and Facebook, with some social media platforms more popular among a younger crowd. Instagram and Snapchat are used by 67% and 62% of those aged 18-29 respectively.

Social media is a powerful tool for law enforcement agencies to inform and connect with their community but engaging on such a public platform without a clear strategy in place can set an agency up for a highly visible failure.

PoliceOne asked some of the leading voices in law enforcement use of social media to share strategies agencies can implement to ensure effective online engagement with their communities.

How does your agency use social media to connect with your citizens? Share your social media success stories in the comments below or email editor@policeone.com.

Use your social media platforms as “welcome windows”

Law enforcement’s use of social media has evolved over the past few years. Most agencies understand the need and importance to have a presence online on platforms such as Nextdoor, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. However, a huge chasm still exists in our industry’s collective understanding of what true engagement looks like online vs. simply using social media platforms to blast information to the public.

To maximize the potential of social media, agencies must understand that posting information online does not equate to “engaging” online. Review your agency’s last few posts and look at the number of people commenting. Has your agency responded to any of those comments? If the answer is “no,” you need to up your engagement game. “Why?” you may ask. Well, imagine if someone walked into your lobby to ask a question but was met with silence and ignored by your front office staff. This is what happens if you post something online and someone takes the time to ask a follow-up question, but you ignore them with no response. In the social media world, “no response” IS a response. Never forget that.

Fortunately, the strategy for success on social media is not hard to follow. The secret sauce? Behave online in the same manner you operate in real life. When officers contact residents every day, we expect them to be professional, courteous and able to answer general questions from the public. And in their contacts, we expect our officers to show humanity, compassion and empathy when appropriate as well as taking control, being authoritative and in command when the situation dictates. It’s no different online.

Having a professional, yet human, “voice” and “tone” is a key step toward resonating with your residents. Don’t use your social media platforms as a bulletin board. Instead, look at them as a welcome window; an opportunity to meet, greet and interact with your citizens. Over time, your investment in this digital community will reap the same rewards we see when we invest time and resources in communities in person: increased relationships, trust and valuable lines of communication.

— Captain Chris Hsiung from the Mountain View Police Department (MVPD) in California is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer and blogger on law enforcement's use of social media. Follow MVPD on Twitter.

Adjust your messaging to fit the medium (and not the other way around)

Many agencies have already discovered that being on social media is not a goal in itself – it’s just the beginning of your journey. And with hundreds of millions of tweets going out every day, we have to make sure we aren’t just posting, but that we’re posting effectively and catching people’s attention as they’re scrolling through their feeds.

In order to do that police departments need to adjust their messaging to fit social media platforms. This requires taking existing messages such as press statements or other forms of communication and altering them so that they are better received on social media. It means getting rid of police jargon, internal codes and long forms of writing and instead opting for shorter and plain-speak versions. It also means you need to learn how to talk informally, something that is easier said than done. We recommend trying to take what you’re saying, like “unattended property resulted in a grand larceny,” and turning it into something like “A Macbook that was left on the table at a diner was stolen.”

You can also try to grab people’s attention while they are mindlessly scrolling by avoiding long sentences and using emojis (but don’t overdo it – you are the cops after all!). However, don’t substitute sentences for links. In the scrolling process, the likelihood of someone clicking on a link you attach is quite low, so try to get all the information you need in the post itself and only add the link for people who want more information. For example, if you have a great news story about one of your officers, try posting a quote from the story that summarizes the feeling you want to convey with the link. That way even if people don’t click on it, they’ll still get the idea. For example:

Additionally, adjusting to the platforms means remembering that the majority of your audience is using a mobile device, which means your tweets and posts are much smaller than you think. This is why we always try to opt for one or two good photos over several and prefer photos that can grab your attention on a small screen over crowded images with lots of detail. For example:

— Yael Bar-tur is the director of Social Media and Digital Strategy for the New York City Police Department. Follow NYPD on Twitter.

Focus on emotional connections

With the continued evolution of the various social media platforms, it is imperative for law enforcement agencies to recognize the need to adapt the way in which we message on social channels.

Before we can understand “what” to say, we should focus on “who” we are saying it to. Today’s social media users have developed a keen aptitude to determine the authenticity of the content they are consuming. This is due in large part to the amount of time spent on social media sites. On average, an individual spends 2 hours and 22 minutes a day on some form of social media platform. That may not seem like a large amount of time, but when compared to the average of 1 hour and 7 minutes a day the average American spends eating, it is an eye-opening number. Studies show that there are only two activities the average American does more than consume social media: sleep and work.

Once we understand the landscape of who we are messaging to, and what has been shown to resonate with them, we can focus on the “what” regarding our content. Today’s social media audience not only wants authenticity, they expect it. In our experience, we have found that by focusing on establishing an emotional connection, our messaging is more authentic by design. Emotional connections are established using personal narratives, or short videos meant to appeal to something as simple as our shared human nature.

The goal with any social messaging strategy should be to combat apathy and to post regularly. One particularly strong emotion, trust, can be formed through something as simple as being responsive. It's not enough to listen. Taking time to respond to direct messages or mentions across myriad social media platforms can pay dividends in establishing trust with any audience in any community. 

Today’s social media audience has evolved. Gone are the days where simply existing in the space is enough. It behooves all of us to focus our social media presence on communication that evokes emotion and establish a presence that is responsive and aware.

— Mathew Rejis serves as the strategic communications officer for the Los Angeles Police Department. Follow LAPD on Twitter.

Be there, be engaged, but beware

Law enforcement is embracing social media and the effects can’t be denied: it’s one of the most powerful community engagement tools the profession possesses. Informing, educating and engaging with our communities has never been as simple as it is today. However, with all the digital dialogue, comes increasing responsibility for law enforcement communicators. Our communities expect they’re going to hear from us, and in a timely manner. Many agencies wisely advertise on their social media platforms that “this account is not monitored 24/7” and to “dial 911 for an emergency.” Here are three points to keep in mind to meet the needs of your community while using social media:

1. Be there: If you’re not already on social media, take the first step. Aim to join the social media platforms where your audience spends time. If you’re a college campus PD, consider Instagram. Twitter is the go-to for journalists, and one that best aligns itself with breaking news.

2. Be engaged: It’s not enough to simply be on a social media platform or two or three. It’s not enough to push out your messages and leave it at that. Every comment, every tweet, every GIF someone sends to your department’s social media platforms is an opportunity for your department to show professionalism, provide safety information or demonstrate a sense of humor. Engaging with those people posting on your page provides your department a chance to show some personality. Humanizing law enforcement is one powerful benefit of social media. Take advantage of those opportunities.

3. Beware: There are people whose goal it is to let you know they’re anti-law enforcement. That’s not a reason to stay off social media. But such posts, comments and tweets must be treated with care. Beware of the person who tries to bait you into a Twitter war. Every move you make on social media represents your department. Consider exactly who you might be responding to and how you do it. You can surprise people who make negative posts by responding with a tone that rises above the negativity and offers something constructive: a number to call to complain, an address to gather records, or thanking them for their feedback but sharing that the cruiser they’ve tweeted you that’s illegally parked doesn’t belong to your fleet!

— Julie Parker is president/CEO of Julie Parker Communications. Follow her on Twitter.

Tell your agency’s story with words, pictures and video

Social media can be the best and most impactful tool for law enforcement agencies to keep the community informed and build positive relationships. But law enforcement agencies should stop focusing so heavily on basic posts we see every day. Instead, we should focus on telling positive stories about our agencies and create a culture of social interaction.

The days of solely depending on your local news station to inform the public about all the positive ways you are serving and protecting your community are long gone. Fortunately, social media gives you the platform to tell your agency’s story. Each day officers from your agency accomplish amazing community policing tasks citizens would love to hear about. These acts often go unnoticed because officers and social media managers fail to snap a few pictures, snag a quick video, or inject humor into social media posts. By adding all three of these small, but very important items, you can heavily elevate your social media standing within your community.

When creating content, put yourself in the community members’ shoes and think about what they want to see. Think about the pages or posts you interact with on social media and which posts you scroll past because they do not catch your attention. What you like seeing on social media and what grabs your attention is very similar to what your community members like seeing on social media. Take an extra second or two to think about your post and make the most of it with custom images and/or video to tell your agency’s story.

Remember, you control the positive image of your agency and, with the proper utilization of social media, you can enhance the relationship with your community. Over the last five years there has been a significant push by community members and administrators to humanize law enforcement. Give the community members what they want – tell your story. By doing so you will create a positive image of your agency within your community.

— Lt. Danny Weigel is the shift commander and public information officer for the University of North Dakota Police Department. Follow UNDPD on Twitter.

Be concise, be current

As basic as the following suggestions may seem, few agencies are rocking these things.

1. Don’t fly blind: Know where you’re heading with your department communications. Develop a strategy that spells out where you’d like to be in six months in terms of platforms used, expertise gained and other goals. Include in your strategy how you will handle various events in terms of messaging and the personnel involved. For example, during emergency events, will you rely on a Virtual Operation Support Team (VOST) or handle it all within your department?

2. Be concise: Stats show that about 80% of the time people access social media with a mobile device. In addition, attention spans are short. Your posts should be to the point and match the intent of the platform. Cross-posting on several platforms at once is a bad practice, as each platform is meant to be different from the next and should be used accordingly.

3. Be visual: More people (about 73%) use YouTube than any other platform. Good PIOs edit videos on their mobile devices and upload from the field. Law enforcement professionals are “going live” on Facebook or Twitter as if it’s always been that way. If you’re not using video, at the very least, include at least one image in every post.

4. Listen to your audience: Pay attention to what’s being said about your department and key personnel. It’s important to note that we’re not talking about monitoring but listening and offering meaningful response and interactions.

5. Use data: Even if all you do is use the built-in stats available in the platforms for free, that’s a great start! Access to data has never been easier. Do annual surveys to ask your audience about their use of social media and how they wish to communicate with you with social media, as well as anything else you want to track. Opportunities for data selection and operationalizing are endless and extremely inexpensive.

6. Stay current: Social media evolves every day. Anyone who expects to remain effective, needs to attend training events and read trusted resources.

— Lauri Stevens is founder of LAwS Communications, a media consultancy for law enforcement, and producer of the SMILE (Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement) conference. Follow Lauri on Twitter.

Use personality to build partnerships

Police departments can't be afraid to expose their personality when communicating with residents. When hiring, we seek candidates with good personalities and strong communication skills. We hire people who provide a high level of public safety but who can also hold a conversation, ensuring people are heard while providing that sense of comfort and security. Social media is how we capitalize on those characteristics to build partnerships with our neighbors.

Our department uses a humorous approach that has occasionally made first-time readers uncomfortable. At first glance people seem to worry our authority may be eroded through such a familiar tone. But carefully employed humor has allowed us to share difficult information in an easily digestible format. Laws are still enforced, and arrests are still made, but through social media we keep people informed because rumors can be harmful.

Our digital strategy includes the concept of anonymity. Information is published by the department and owned by the organization. Very few messages are attributed to an officer and, when they are, it is made clear with a signature. The original purpose was to prevent any single staff member from being overburdened by residents seeking direct access. What we quickly realized was that our “anonymous” persona translated into a department standard. Residents have come to expect that every officer respond to them politely, with respect, and usually with a smile in a manner typical of “the Facebook guy.” This may seem manipulative, and it is. But our roster is full of amazing individuals who benefit from explicit permission (and a bit of encouragement) to use their personality to their benefit. The Facebook “persona” isn’t a fictitious character. It’s a hybrid of the various personalities that comprise our department.

Equally important is a commitment to bidirectional communication. Our staff responds to as many comments, questions and complaints as possible. It's one thing to be funny, but to be professional, we must also be accessible. Our standard automated response to direct messages is that our digital platforms are not staffed 24/7, but the families of our admins know that's a bit misleading. If someone with access is awake, you'll likely get an answer (of course, emergency callers should dial 911). If you prefer your desk officers not hang up on residents calling headquarters, then you should also prefer your social media admins respond to relevant comments and questions on your social media accounts in a timely fashion.

— Kevin Sylvester is chief of the Ossining Police Department (OPD) in Ossining, New York. Follow OPD on Twitter.

Build an online army of supporters

Police departments across the country have amazing community outreach programs to help make their cities and towns a better place to live. But if residents don’t know that cops are in schools showing the dangers of drunk driving during prom season, then as far as they know, cops aren’t doing it. When we show communities that officers are volunteering to teach a self-defense class, citizens start to see a different side to police. When your residents know that you care, they are more likely to listen to what you have to say.

Every time one of your residents sees you feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving or playing with school kids on the playground, you make a goodwill deposit into a savings account. It is critical you build up as much equity in your goodwill savings account as you can. Eventually one of your officers or department is going to make a mistake that could erode the credibility and confidence of your community in what you do. Having goodwill equity built up and honestly addressing and correcting mistakes will help you keep public confidence through trying times. In addition, you will begin to build an online army of supporters that will come to your defense when people unfairly criticize your agency.

Harness this amazing tool of communication and show your community you care.

— Josh Hans is the PIO for the Parker Police Department in Parker, Colorado. Follow PPD on Twitter.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2019 PoliceOne.com. All rights reserved.