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.
1) Follow people back
2) Don’t set up an account and walk away
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: The Bellevue Police Department is a LAwS client.