Welcome to the third in a new series of social media tips aimed primarily at a police audience, but hopefully applicable to a wider group of people too, especially those in the public sector. This series of posts will aim to identify some good practice and useful hints and tips for police officers and staff to consider when using social media.

Part 3: Policies / Strategies / Guidance??

You will hear lots of people claiming that you need a whole raft of documents before starting using social media. After all we are the police, and we NEVER do anything without a massive written policy and guidance, and probably a week long training course too. Well, you may want to reconsider that approach, for a number of reasons:

Social media changes really fast. Don’t forget that Twitter is only 5 years old. 3 years ago we would have been discussing MySpace as the network of choice, and how to engage with the public on Friends Reunited. Any policy you write now will quickly be obsolete – as an example I expect location based services like Foursquare and Facebook Places to become more popular in the next 12 months, and after that something else again.

You already have policies about social interactions. They probably say something like we will give you a guide on what to say to the public, but generally trust you to get on with it. If there is a complaint we will deal with it. If you make an error, apologise and deal with it. Why would you want to write a new strategy covering exactly the same thing when done online? You already have a strategy for policing. Ours is centred on protecting the public, making communities safer and improving what we do. All of that translates well on to social media platforms – and best of all your staff will (or should) be already aware of the strategy, and already be implementing it is their community and their area. So am I saying that you should just say ‘get on with it, you are on your own!’ Well not quite (although the part about ‘get on with it’ is worth saying, and repeating a few times, but I digress…)

There are some pitfalls to social media, and a couple that are unique to policing. Copyright is an issue that a police force would not want to be caught out on, but one that many users of the Internet think does not apply to them. Find a good source of Creative Commons licensed photos (I use Flick’r). These can be used non-commercially with an acknowledgement of the source.

Images of the public – especially children – can be contentious. A good idea would be to make sure you have appropriate consent before using these on your social media site. (I did however read one social media policy that talked about getting written consent, countersigned by an inspector or above, and filed for 3 years with a copy sent to the communications department…)

Deleting posts is a sensitive subject. There will be occasions when users post offensive content, and this should be removed, especially if a page is intended for family consumption like most police pages. But what about comments that are not offensive, but not in agreement with your posts? What about those comments that could prejudice an investigation (“I know who did it, he lives at…”) or those that are simply pointless? Some consideration of these issues up front is worth the effort, before you get accused of censorship!

So do you need a stack of policies to start using social media? No. Should you just turn your people loose with no guidance? Also no. And if you want to see some example policies (some good some bad) then have a look here, or drop me a line in the comments and I will send you the guidance I wrote for Lincolnshire Police.

This post was previously published on Partrdigej’s blog.

Previous posts from the Social Media Handbook Series:

Part 1: What Social Media networks should I use?

Part 2: How do I get followers / friends ???

Justin Partridge

Justin Partridge is a senior manager for Lincolnshire Police in England. He also works on Local Policing and Partnerships for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

Justin Partridge has worked in the public sector since leaving university, and for the police since 2003. After being one of only three non-sworn staff selected for the prestigious Police Strategic Command Course (for those who aspire to the most senior posts in UK policing), he started working on the national Local Policing and Partnerships area with chief officers from across the UK, and with partners from the Home Office, NPIA, APA and elsewhere.

Justin is passionate about making a difference to people, and see social media and new technologies having a major role in this – especially in policing and the wider public sector. He blogs on a variety of issues, predominantly around police and technology, and can be found on Twitter talking about much the same.