The idea of law enforcement agencies using social media tools is catching on, but it’s still a strange thought to many cops who would rather cut off their right arm than admit that they’re a “tweeter”. Social media refers to the Internet-based tools that people use to interact with each other. Most are free to use and they multiply every day. Making sense of all the available tools and methods can seem daunting. But with a little knowledge, a strategy, a department policy and some determination, law enforcement stands to gain significant benefits by putting their departments into the world of Web 2.0. At the end of this article are nine tips that will assure your success.

The Internet and the social media tools that ride on it are making the world smaller. If you let them, they can bring your town right into your backyard. Social media tools are offering PD’s a way to listen to their citizens and hear what’s being said about them and about crime and events. But they’re also offering the ability to shape some of the conversation.

Social media consumers, are super-connected to their worlds and have advanced mobile behavior. Typically, users are in their 30s, read blogs, and are generally very knowledgeable about their worlds. If your PD isn’t as connected to your citizens as you’d like to be, rest assured that your citizens ARE connected to other citizens and all of them are the citizens you want to reach. They’ll spread the word for you (using social media of course) and in the event of an emergency;  the communication of essential information will spread exponentially fast, before any of your local media outlets even realize anything has happened.

One of the best things about these tools is that they cost nothing to use. But don’t get fooled into believing that they really cost nothing. You do have to commit the personnel resources to using them. In fact, the more individuals in the department working them each day, the better results your department will realize.

When one of your officers handles a bad wreck where the driver is way over the limit and obliterates his car around a telephone pole and then tweets a photo of the car with the comment, “I can’t believe this guy survived”, it’ll hit home with local citizens far more quickly than the best M.A.D.D. advertisement because it just happened that minute, in your town, and because your officer thought enough to send the message. THAT is great content. The local news could cover the same story and give it far more than 140 characters and it won’t have the same impact as that tiny little tweet because 1) it’s delayed until news time, 2) it gets buried by the rest of the newscast and 3) it doesn’t have the same credibility that it does when it comes from the real cop on the scene.

If you’re ready to consider implementing a social media plan into your law enforcement agency, please consider these nine tips to get you on the right track:

1.       Have a strategy. Plan which tools (Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, MySpace, Ning, etc.) to use,which units will use them and how they will use them. Determine the people who will be responsible for managing them and decide how you will use the tools to enhance the department’s message and how the tools will feed each other. State your goals and how you expect to know when you’ve achieved what you hope to achieve. Develop a time plan for rolling them out and a plan for how you will get the department up to speed on them.

2.       Create a department policy and encourage other sworn personnel to use them. A social media policy is essential. Your officers need to know that it’s o.k. to be using department-sanctioned social media tools. Also, guidelines need to be put in place for them to understand what’s o.k. and what’s not. Just as important are guidelines within your policy outlining how officers should behave on non-department-sanctioned social media applications.  

3.       Have people to work the tools. The networking tools are free, but someone has to really work these tools to keep your department on people’s minds. Your fans or followers need to know you’re really serious about giving them useful information.  At a minimum, one person overseeing the entire program needs to plan, depending on department size, 1-4 hours per day, spread over the day, including weekends, to monitor and manage the content going through your social media program. That doesn’t necessarily mean that person is the same one who creates all the content. Ideally other officers, at all levels of the organization would be on board to post content.  

4.       It’s really not about the technology. It’s about the content. Just because you read this article or someone else says you need to use Facebook, doesn’t mean you should just jump on board. If you’re not prepared to provide great content regularly, wait until you’re ready.  Just being on any of these platforms isn’t enough. As cool as the technologies are, it always comes back to the content.

5.       Abandon Fear. One of law enforcement’s biggest concerns about social media tools seems to be fear that too much information about the department will get out. By using social media tools you must accept that you want to give your department a voice and be willing to show its personality and culture from the perspective of someone on the inside.  Accept the fact that people will say negative things about your PD, whether within social media or elsewhere. You will get unsolicited feedback, your intentions will be scrutinized; but all that negative activity is going to happen whether you’re using social media or not. By using it, you have the opportunity to shape the conversation and at least see what people are saying with greater acuity than before.

6.       Don’t sign up and walk away. If you create a presence with social media and walk away, it will be more difficult for you to be credible in the future when you try again. Be absolutely certain that you have a plan in place, the resources to make it work and the knowledge required before you get started. The attitude of “build it and they will come” does not work, and nothing will make you look like an amateur more than a Facebook page that hasn’t been updated since the day it was created. If you follow the advice given here, it will work.  

7.       Avoid anonymity. All social media tools are meant to enhance communication between humans. If you set up a Facebook page and post to it as the department, rather than an individually identified officer within the department with some information about him or her in the profile, the content will never be as good as it would be when a real person is standing behind it. Ideally, you’ll get several officers to participate and contribute regularly. Anonymity defeats the purpose. If your department is trying to open communication with citizens, anonymity could backfire. Nothing says you’re unapproachable more than creating a presence online and being unwilling to put a name, preferably several, on your content.

8.       Social media is about two-way communication. All these tools are about people communicating with people. Twitter, especially seems to be prone to law enforcement agencies using it as a one-way communication tool. If you set up an account and get many followers and never follow any back, as many PD’s are doing, you can’t have a conversation, nor can you tap into what they are saying about you. In addition, you’re going to turn a lot of people off.  

9.       If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t go alone. Get advice from other law enforcement agencies or an expert who knows what tools will accomplish your goals. Find somebody who can help you plan, implement and manage your social media program. Provide training for the people in your agency on how to use the tools effectively and encourage them do so.

Social media tools don’t replace anything you’re doing now. Especially with regard to any PR or community outreach initiatives you may have. Be certain that they’re all tied together with your social media efforts; that the messages are saying the same thing and that each enhances the other. Realize also that creating a presence in these areas is just the beginning. It takes time to build a following. Keep focusing on providing stellar content, follow your plan and work it every day, and the rest will fall into place.