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Three steps almost every Law Enforcement agency should consider for a better Twitter presence

It’s called social media for a reason:

I’m working on a study of hundreds of law enforcement agencies on Twitter and a few things are jumping right out of the pile. By looking only at Twitter this go-round, I have these three observations and suggestions for how police agencies can improve their Twitter presence immediately.

TwitterThree steps every Law Enforcement agency can take to have a better presence on Twitter

1)      Follow people back

2)      Don’t set up an account and walk away

3)      Don’t be anonymous, put a name and a face on your tweets

Let me explain…..

Follow people back. Twitter is about human to human interaction. An account set up that only follows other police departments or worse, no one at all, does nothing to encourage interaction. At the very least, follow the people in your community, both geographically and those in the community with similar interests as yours (like me, ahem). If your agency doesn’t want to follow people back because it only wants to send out communications, you can use different tools to accomplish that. Nixle, for example, is a free tool for one-to-many communication. The company will verify your agency so that people who sign up for alerts know they’re really coming from the police. You send an alert, your citizens receive it however they’ve elected to receive it, and that’s it.

Don’t set up an account and walk away. I’m really surprised at the number of departments who have tweeted absolutely nothing or who haven’t tweeted since they first set up the account, many months prior. They would be better served to delete the account and get back into Twitter when they have the strategy and the resources to manage it properly. Nothing screams “we don’t have a clue what we’re doing” better than an account that’s produced no activity.

Don’t be anonymous, put a name and a face on your tweets. Police departments already have a problem with coming across as unapproachable. Because of the authority the job represents, cops sometimes seem scary and distant. If a department starts a Twitter account with only the department name, regardless of what tweets are sent, it’s reinforcing that inapproachability. When tweets go out from @policedeptnamehere, without any other identifier, it feels cold. Twitter is supposed to be friendly.

All three of these things are clues that the department didn’t think through, at least not enough, its social media strategy before jumping in. If the President is coming to town and your department is providing the motorcade, you wouldn’t wing it. Hours of preparation are completed in advance. If there’s a barricaded gunman in your city, the SWAT team doesn’t just show up and fly into action without leadership and direction. It’s the same with social media. Using social media tools are far less critical and dramatic of course. But like anything else, they’re exponentially more effective if they’re employed properly with forethought and a plan.

One department with which I’m very familiar is right on target with all three points. Check out the Bellevue Police Department’s twitter stream on its website homepage. Bellevue PD doesn’t have a lot of followers, but it follows back anybody who looks like they’re in the Bellevue/Omaha area. Since setting up the account they’ve had several active tweeters in the department. And, perhaps most importantly, each officer tweets with his real name (rank+lastname) and then those tweets are retweeted into the official police stream, which is posted on its homepage. So followers know there’s a real, named person behind each message. Citizens can follow @bellevuepolice, and/or if they like the individual officers too. The tweeters are made up of mostly sergeants, lieutenants, the captain and the chief, with a few officers as well.

So far we don’t know about any major crimes in Bellevue being solved because of Twitter, but the department has received a very positive reaction from the public who has commented on Twitter about how hard-working and diligent their officers are. Because the Bellevue cops tweet about arrests they’re making, as well as what they do on their day off or humorous items, they’ve made strides in coming across as friendly, and real, live, humans.

These are only suggestions. Truth is, I commend any agency who is braving the new frontier of social media in any way. I welcome your thoughts, here on this blog, or by emailing me separately at lauri@lawscommunications.net.

Disclaimer: The Bellevue Police Department is a LAwS client.

Condoms and Twitter, dubious crime-fighting tools

Note: I’ve been writing a lot about the Toronto Police Service lately and thought I should diversify a bit. But, I’ve decided I’m going to go ahead and write more about TPS for several reasons: 1) TPS has many great success stories about their use of social media 2) they don’t seem to mind telling me about them, and 3) because THIS story absolutely astounds me…


Most of our major “news” is derived from our press releases or from our daily blotter, a synopsis of activity from the previous day or weekend.  The releases and the blotter have been sent to various media outlets, previously by fax, but recently by e-mail.

As I mentioned in the Great Expectations piece, at the Boca Raton Police Services Department, we continue to adapt our communication strategy to improve the flow of information and to meet customer demands.  Recently, we decided to make our press releases immediately available to the public, instead of sending copies to the media and posting the releases online at a later time.  We have also increased the speed at which information is released through Nixle and Twitter. 

These changes caught the interest of a local television news outlet and they came to do a story on our use of social media.  I think it was a great piece because it covered some of the tools we are using.  However, the comments about bypassing the media “screening” process were important, because it illustrated what I believe to be a key issue surrounding the use of social media by law enforcement.  Check out the article and video here http://bit.ly/25g7U.

What is interesting about the reaction was that we didn’t change the information we released.  We simply changed the timing relative to when the public receives the information.  In this age of transparency, I think increased public access is a good thing. 

However, Mr. Brosemer has a valid point about the other elements of our communication strategy and social media elements.  We are writing our own stories and creating our own news, using social media to reach a wider audience and, in some ways, creating our own spin.  Why?  Because we can and we should. 

Because of economic conditions and the explosive growth of social media, we certainly do not enjoy the media coverage we used to get.  The local outlets do not have the resources they used to have and they are not interested in many of the items we think may be useful to our customers. 

I do not believe our constituents are mindless drones.  They are perfectly capable of drawing their own conclusions about our stories and our spin.  The beauty of our system of government coupled with the application of social media is the two-way nature of the communication.  If someone doesn’t like what we are doing (social media or otherwise), I’ll hear about it.  As we have demonstrated already, we are not afraid to identify shortcomings and make changes.

Mark made an important point at the end of the Channel 5 piece.  We, in no way, are trying to bypass the traditional media.  Our social media elements provide yet another layer and function as a resource to them as well.  I think the media will play a valuable role in this debate.  More is good.  Let me know what you think.

Toronto Police use social media to hunt for murderer

Police in Toronto, Ontario (TPS) are looking for a murderer and are currently waging an all-out online effort in social media to find him. When Zabiullah Mojaddedi intervened in a street robbery last month, two men opened fire on him. One arrest has been made. Tristan Lall, 25, was on a lifetime court-ordered ban from firearms. He has been charged with first-degree murder. TPS CrimeStoppers Unit, lead by Constable Scott Mills, is spreading the word with Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

The murder took place in a heavily populated city park, right next to a basketball court. The video above has been posted on YouTube by TPS. In it, Detective Peter Code says, “there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s somebody out there that knows who was with Tristan Lall that evening.”

Anyone with any information is asked to call 416-808-7393 or can leave information anonymously at 416-222-TIPS or 800-222-TIPS or go to www.222tips.com, or by texting TOR and your message to 274637. Twitter is @1800222TIPS, Facebook is www.facebook.com/800222tips

Making the case for using social media tools in policing

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, Blip.tv 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.

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