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Social Media to the Rescue When Disaster Strikes

A tornado rips through your city, destroying hundreds of homes and killing dozens of people.

Power is out. Power lines are down. Roads are blocked and covered with debris, making it next to impossible for emergency services to efficiently respond for search, rescue and recovery efforts.

When the dust has started to settle, how do you as a city get the word out immediately, both to residents and people nationwide who may have family members in your city or want to offer assistance?

You use Social Media.

A day after a tornado barreled through Joplin, M.O., killing more than 100 people, 5 Facebook pages were created about recovery efforts and missing persons and survivors.

The Joplin, MO Tornado Recovery page had 138,281 people “like” the page within 48 hours of the disaster.

Posts include information from Joplin residents about which streets are closed/blocked, donation drops sites, benefit concerts and phone-a-thons, a local restaurant that was serving free lunch, and people nationwide asking how and where they can help; one woman from Louisiana who said she was driving to Joplin with a car full of diapers and formula.

There’s also the Joplin, MO – Missing Persons & Survivors Page, which had more than 4,300 followers by Tuesday morning. People looking for information about their loved ones are posting on that page. They are also updating the page when loved ones are found.

The City of Tuscaloosa, Alabama has also been using Facebook and Twitter as a means of spreading information about tornado relief efforts there. The Tuscaloosa City Facebook page has more than 3,000 followers and more than 4,700 people follow @Tuscaloosacity on Twitter.

The information shared on these sites includes volunteer resource center hours, recycling drop off locations, updates on storm debris removal, school schedules, photographs, facts and figures, including this one on May 14: @tuscaloosacity Of the 7,274 residential structures impacted, 2,375 were destroyed, 2,349 had major damage, 1,025 had minor damage & 1,525 were affected.

It may not even be possible to get on a computer or mobile phone following a disaster in your city to update a Facebook status or Tweet, but those are the first places people seeking details about the disaster will turn to for information.

That’s why it is so critical for cities, police departments and fire services to use social media on a regular basis – before the big one hits. City residents should know ahead of time that if there’s a disaster, they can also turn to Social Media for information from local officials. These are vital free resources that will help you keep the public informed and safe following an emergency management situation.

Social Media is not meant to replace your use of local media to get the word out. It’s an added resource, and in a time of crisis, you need all the help you can get.

Stephanie Slater

Stephanie Slater became the Boynton Beach Police Department’s Public Information Officer in April 2007, following seven years as a newspaper reporter. Slater, a New York native, is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where she majored in print journalism.  Slater is the spokeswoman for the Boynton Beach Police Department, serving as the liaison between the officers, the media and the public. She writes the department’s press releases, provides television news interviews, maintains the department’s Web sites (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace) and oversees the department’s Officer of the Month program. Slater is a member of the National Public Information Officers Association. Follow the Boynton Beach Police on Facebook (www.facebook.com/boyntonbeachpolice) and Twitter (@bbpd).

Connecting with the Community & Media via Social Media

So your agency has decided to participate in social media. You’ve sent out a couple Tweets and Facebook updates but there’s been no response. Is anyone listening?

Many law enforcement agencies use social media as a one-way, notification tool, but there are other agencies that are successfully using social media as a communication tool. The three keys to law enforcement communication through social media are:

  • content
  • consistency
  • and sharing.

Content is the most important factor in your social media efforts.
Content can include traffic alerts, breaking news, event postings, department news, press releases, crisis communication, photos and videos from in the field and responses to questions or comments from the community and the media.

Once you decide what you’ll be saying you need to consider how you’ll say it. As a former reporter, I can tell you that I wanted and needed frequent communication with my sources. Social media has become a place where reporters can get information and ask follow-up questions. Think about it: instead of fielding a dozen phone calls from local reporters, post a link to a media release and answer a couple questions. This saves you and the reporter time and energy. And, it’ll build your credibility with the media and show reporters that you care about getting out timely information and fielding their questions.

Also, don’t be afraid to become more personal with reporters via social media. If they ask a question or post something interesting, don’t hesitate in responding. This gives your agency a human face and makes you much more approachable for questions or media requests.

And while you’re answering questions, make sure to post a few of your own. Setting up polls or posting questions or quizzes will drive discussion and will encourage feedback. Agencies should also be prepared for unwelcome communication. Lynn Hightower, communications director for the Boise (Idaho) Police Department, says being prepared for any type of question or comment is key in your social media planning. “Even if you don’t ask for interaction, citizens will have questions and comments on community issues and they will try to reach out to your agency for answers and feedback,” she said. “To ignore those inquiries would not send a positive message. Agencies using social media should plan ahead for the types of interaction likely to come their way and be prepared.”

Dionne Waugh, Marketing and Public Relations Specialist for the Richmond (Virginia) Police Department, said her agency has gotten a lot of positive reaction to their Daily Good News Item and the Officer, Sergeant and Civilian of the Month videos and notes. “I think this is because they give people insight into the department and the great work of employees they normally wouldn’t hear about,” she said. “On the flip side, we’ve seen a lot of debate when we post mugshots from our prostitution stings. Depending on the operation and manpower, we post both the prostitutes’ and the johns’ photos. I don’t consider this a negative reaction. I think it’s a good thing when we can generate debate between people about the best way to reduce crime.”

Almost as important as content is the frequency which you post to social media. As Waugh said above, Richmond PD gets a lot of great response to their regular features and Boise Police Department has gotten great response from its daily Twitter traffic tip. People come to rely on these daily, weekly or monthly nuggets of information. And, as you can see, they don’t need to be huge, breaking news stories. They can be something as simple as a profile of an officer or a construction update. Each of these regular postings leads to increased agency visibility and better recognition as a trusted source of information.

Also, think about the timing of your messages. If you have a message you really want the community to read, make sure to send them at peak social media traffic times – 7 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. These are the times people are waking up, eating lunch, winding down at work and settling in for the night, and they are much more likely to see your message at the top of their news feeds, instead of wading through hundreds of messages before seeing your hour-old alert.

If you have a really big story you want covered by the media, try thinking of when a reporter is most likely to need a story to cover – at the end of the week. On Thursdays and Fridays reporters are trying to find stories to fill the weekend editions.

Retweeting on Twitter or reposting information from reliable sources will help your cause two-fold – you’ll be seen as a consistent, reliable source of interesting information and the community will start coming to you for updates. You will also be seen by those who originally sent out the information and your information is more likely to be retweeted and reposted by those people. It’s another important tool in the social media toolbox for communication and information sharing.

Image: Flickr by Scoobay

Kelly L. Reynolds is a publications specialist with the Rocky Mountain Information Network, a regional law enforcement intelligence agency based in Phoenix, Arizona. At RMIN she designs and edits the monthly magazine, the RMIN Bulletin, which includes her monthly “Social Media Corner” column. Kelly also works as a social media consultant and has several years of experience as an online/social media reporter for a daily newspaper. @reynoldsreport | facebook.com/reynoldsreport

Simon Shilton and Kerry Blakeman, March 22, 2011 Twitcam Broadcast

Taking Public Safety to the Street with Twitcam

Simon Shilton @spshilton and Kerry Blakeman @kerryblakeman, March 22, 2011 Twitcam Broadcast

Kerry Blakeman, a Chief Inspector at West Midlands Police in England, had observed his daughter watching a live broadcast of, and sending messages to, a pop star via Twitcam. Then, it occurred to him, why not “give it a go” for policing? “So I thought actually I could do a live broadcast and people don’t have to leave their home. They can ask me questions about policing in Coventry… I wanted to reach out to different members of the community specifically young people who rarely come to one of our meetings,” he said.

Taking the Public Safety Dialog on the Road
Blakeman held his first broadcast from his dining room, but since then has teamed up with Simon Shilton, Operations Commander at West Midlands Fire Department and took the Twitcam broadcasts to the streets of Coventry. CI Blakeman tweeted asking businesses in the area if they’d offer their business wifi service to the effort, “I got five replies saying come on over”.  With the borrowed wifi, a cheap webcam, a tripod and a laptop, they were in business and could set up anywhere.

Since Blakeman’s solo dining room broadcast, they’ve done two more broadcasts together. The first was March 22nd, and can be viewed here. Both men agree the technology is a promising way reach the citizens they serve and address whatever is on the citizens’ minds right where they live. Shilton pointed out it’s a learning process and very much an experiment, “It’s new for us… we’re just learning as we go along”, he said. Blakeman concurs that right now they’re proving the concept and acknowledges there have been challenges, such as being asked a tough question and having to answer it live. He points to the time he was asked to justify use of force during a burglary, “you’ve really got to think on your feet. But when you get done, there’s a real feeling of – I’ve just achieved something. I’ve just represented the service well.”

So far, online viewers have numbered fewer than 30 but have included someone from Dubai and from the RCMP in Canada. Some locals also turn-out to watch in person. In one case, a boy-scout troop was in the audience. Even with a smallish audience they’ve already received intel from “younger people in terms of the kind of issues that we don’t normally get to hear about, like drug abuse and drug dealing,” said Blakeman. It works both ways because the citizens receive some great information as well. Blakeman said he might include a police demo in a future broadcast, perhaps even a taser demonstration.

What is Twitcam?
Twitcam is a Livestream product that’s been around since summer of 2009. To broadcast you need a Twitter account. Sign in with Twitter and click “broadcast”. Once the system accesses your camera and microphone, you’re online. Twitcam provides a tweetable link to send to your Twitter followers. Viewers can send the broadcaster messages via the Twitcam dashboard as illustrated here with a screenshot from Blakeman’s first broadcast.

To assist his colleagues, Blakeman wrote a Twitcam guide with step by step instructions and a synopsis of the questions and comments from citizens. Here is a representative sample:

  • Can you do anything to ENCOURAGE Warwickshire Police to use twitter or twitcam?
  • What is your opinion on the relationship with teenagers and police?
  • Do you think we should have elected Police commissioners?
  • Is the rumour true that all potential recruits to police will have 2 be specials first?
  • Here’s a question! How can the general public help you with policing in Coventry?
  • Burglary was at a high recently what have you been doing to drive it down?
  • Thank you so much for your Twitcam session. It was excellent. It’s a great way for you to talk to the public.
  • Glad it went well. I didn’t tune in – I was watching the football!

His colleagues are noticing

DCC Gordon Scobbie

The UK’s ACPO-appointed (Asso of Chief Police Officers) Social Media lead law officer is Deputy Chief Constable Gordon Scobbie. DCC Scobbie said he’s very excited by the potential for Twitcam broadcasts because they get at the heart of both social media and policing, allowing for the delivery of messages to the public in a very direct way. “It also shows Kerry and those supporting him to be human beings with a personality. This builds on the trust, confidence and legitimacy areas which are so important to delivering excellent local policing”, he added. Scobbie also praised Blakeman’s initiative because he “understands the power of using social media whilst being physically present in the community.”

DCC Scobbie plans to implement Twitcam broadcasts at his own service in Tayside, Scotland. But he cautions that not everyone will have the skill to deliver it successfully. “This is true for all social media, the personality and ability to connect with the community and individuals is not something that everyone can do well. Officers and police staff need to have self awareness in this regard,” Scobbie said.

Shilton and Blakeman have plans for many more public broadcasts. Shilton added, “We’re happy that people are logging on and interested in what we have to say. The proof in the pudding will be if we start losing viewers. That’ll be the message to us that we’re not doing things right. As long as we keep growing in numbers, we’ll know that we’re hitting the right mark.”

So if you happen to find yourself in Coventry and see a cop and a firefighter talking to a tiny camera, know that what you don’t see is probably dozens, if not by then 100s of Coventry citizens receiving some fantastic public safety service from a couple of very dedicated and forward-thinking first responders.

Social Media Quick Tip: Know Who Your Friends Are

Fake cop profiles are proliferating on Facebook & other social networks

On Facebook and other social media networks, do you know who's a real cop and who's not? Photo iStock

An old (bad) joke: A citizen calls the police and says she saw a UFO. Police: “How do you know it was a UFO?” Citizen: “It said ‘UFO’ on the aircraft.”

Fake cop profiles are proliferating on Facebook and other social networks. It’s imperative that real law officers don’t friend them. But, like UFOs, the fakes are not labeled as such.

How do you know who’s real and who’s not?

There are tell-tale signs: There may be a real vagueness in where they work, except to say it’s “in law enforcement.” But there isn’t a secret formula for identifying them. We’ve even seen some who use the photo of a deceased cop as their profile photo.

Why should you care? These phonies aren’t there because they love cops. Observations suggest they want:

1. To get your information and that of your friends/family;
2. To identify real law officers for their databases;
3. To legitimize themselves with others; and
4. To legitimize the shady groups they join.

When I see a profile I suspect is a phony, inevitably when viewing my “mutual friends” on Facebook, there’s someone I know to be a law officer. Not once, when I contact one of those real officers about how they know the presumed phony, have they answered that they know them to be real. It’s always along the lines of “they post a lot on XYZ page and he seems like a ‘good guy’.” Of course he does. That’s part of the ruse.

It’s not a popularity contest. Every time you’re presented with a friend request from someone you don’t know, tell yourself it might really be a wacko up to no good, because it could be.

This Social Media Quicktip was previously published on LawOfficer.com.

5 Things Every Police Website Homepage Should Have

  • Emergency and non emergency numbers front and center
  • Most Wanted
  • Silent Hotline
  • Links to news like press releases and events
  • Integration of social media accounts

There are many things to consider when designing and administrating your department’s website. It must look professionally designed and well thought out with navigation designed for ease of use by your community. It must contain pertinent information for the public such as safety and crime information. Information you offer must be kept updated and relevant on a regular basis. Utilizing pictures of your officers on the job can on your pages can help put a face on your department. And of course, correct spelling and proper grammar go a long way towards cementing how professional your department appears to your community.

What they say about first impressions is true. Your community will judge the rest of your site and even your department based on your website’s homepage or front page. Therefore, it’s important to focus on things that will entice your visitors to look deeper into the site and keep them coming back. This is a list of some important things your website should provide not only within the site, but preferrably on the front page of your site.

1. Emergency and non-emergency contact information. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many departments fail to at least provide a non-emergency number on their front page so people don’t have to dig around on the site to give you a quick call about something that doesn’t require emergency attention.

2. Most Wanted or other ATL information. The front page of your website is a great place to showcase those people you may be looking for or to give more information to the public about cold cases, etc. Citizens find these topics interesting and are apt to at least take a peak if you have them on your front page. Make sure you include photos of some of your Most Wanted. This makes it visually more exciting than just a link.

3. To go along with your Most Wanted, its a good idea to have a number of online forms on your site for people to contact your department with. One form in particular belongs on the front page – the Silent Hotline. The Silent Hotline or whatever you want to call it, should be a link to a form that can be filled out online and submitted anonymously. Thats right, no IP addresses collected, no email addresses collected, etc. to trace back. This form should be similar to making an anonymous phone call. With anonymity you will get more people apt to fill out the form and submit more tips. Many of the best tips have come in over the Internet and Email or Social Media so don’t brush this one off. In addition, some forms you have on your site may need to be secure. This means you must have a secure server or SSL – secure sockets link for these forms to be transmitted through, just like when you are purchasing something online. This is particularly important if you are going to allow citizens to send you requests like Vacation Watch requests. A Vacation Watch request might contain a citizen’s address, times and dates their home will be empty, etc. You don’t want some bad guy intercepting this data off of an unsecured transmission to your website. And with a plethora of free tools available on the Internet it’s very easy for someone to snag this information during transmission. To have an SSL or secure socket layer you will need a web server that supports SSL encryption, a unique IP address and an SSL Certificate provided by an SSL certificate provider. If you host your site with an outside host they may be able to help you set this up or there are also services on the web you can host just forms on to serve them securely. If you have an internal site you will have to rely on your internal IT to help you out.

4. The front page of your website is also a great place to post links to press releases, upcoming programs, events and links to good news stories too. Posting this information on your front page where it’s easily seen can garner your department more community participation in programs and show your citizens how proactive your department is.

5. Last but not least, I hope your department has begun using Social Media to interact more with your community. Right now, this is the single most cost effective thing you can do to connect with your citizens. This does not however, overshadow your website. As a matter of fact, your website can be an integral part of your Social Media plan. Your website draws a number of citizens looking for information on your department. So why not introduce them to your social media accounts while they are there so they can follow you there as well. Try to integrate the icons and invites to Facebook, Twitter, etc. into your front page design. These icons usually are placed towards the top of the page. Remember, many people really do want to hear from their police departments. They do like knowing what is going on and can help you spread the word you need to get out regarding safety, missing persons, wanted persons, etc.

Your website is a good resource to use to keep in touch with your community. Spend the time to optimize your front page to get that good first impression.

Pam Armstrong

Pam is an Information Specialist with the City of Chandler, Arizona. She was the webmaster and designer for the Chandler Police Department with the PIO office for 10 years. During this time she built many police and police related websites to serve both the public and sworn communities. She currently manages and assists with many social media accounts with various divisions in the city. She is also a professional FBI trained Forensic Artist and has done over 150 sketches in the last four years. Before joining Chandler, Pam worked at Cox Interactive Media, a subsidiary of Cox Enterprises as a senior web designer. Before that Pam did work in 3-dimensional web design and served as an animator, artist and video production specialist. She can be found at: @pjarmstrongaz on Twitter and tumblr: le-tek.tumblr.com

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