This is a guest post by my friend and colleague Christa M. Miller, co-author of Cops2point0.

Christa M Miller

Christa M Miller

The first time I ever heard someone in law enforcement use the term “the public,” I was struck by how—well, general it sounded. Maybe it was the dispatcher’s neutral tone, or the fact that I was a newly minted Explorer with one foot still in that “public” world.

“The public” brought to mind an image of a crowd of faceless people, some grasping, some standing silently, all with expectations. Which is not entirely inaccurate when you are a public servant, trying to take care of the needs you have control over, versus the ones you don’t.

Public is plural, not singular

Still, in fairness, “the public” is really composed of many different publics. Some overlap, but in general, you have private residents, business owners, retirees, students (and their teachers), drivers… you get the idea.

All of them have different needs. The residents need to know their homes and families are safe from burglars and Internet predators. The business owners want to make sure their customers won’t be intimidated by loiterers or vandals. Students and teachers are concerned with bullies and weapons. None of them wants to get mowed down by a drunk driver or taken by an identity thief.

The danger of thinking in terms of “the public” is that PIOs will simply throw information out there from which they believe everyone will benefit—when targeted messaging would serve needs better.

To some extent, they’re right. A notification about a burglary spree in a neighborhood crosses demographics, as does information about a bad crash or other public safety issue.

But PIOs can achieve greater understanding of their publics using common sense—and certain features available through Twitter and (on a limited basis) Facebook.

The value of listing and grouping

Have you looked at Lauri’s Twitter list of law enforcement agencies? It is a great little tool for two reasons: 1) it allows you to see what other agencies are doing with Twitter. And 2) from Lauri’s perspective, that helps her do a better job of consulting her law enforcement clients.

Because you can group followers (no, you don’t have to be following them back), creating lists for media/reporters, business owners, residents, and visitors means you can see not only who they are; but also what they’re tweeting.

Listing followers does take time, and you may not see a list full of concerns about speeders on their street, or teens with nothing to do. But a peek every once in a while can give you a better idea of the people behind “the public.”

Listing followers is a valuable tool even for agencies that already break down their publics according to beat/neighborhood (Bellevue, Nebraska and Oxnard, California) or specialized unit (Portland, Oregon). It can still help them tailor content more effectively.

Take, for instance, Portland PD’s Sunshine Division, which provides food to needy families. Or the WomenStrength! Program, which provides free self-defense classes to women. Knowing whether and which local restaurants were following them could help Sunshine Division secure food donations, while WomenStrength might be able to talk specific issues like dating violence to the single women and teens following them.

Across social networking sites

Twitter lists are convenient ways to research who in your community is online, and they’re a great start for PIOs and community relations officers. But just as Twitter is not the only social networking tool an agency should be using, its lists are not the only way to direct online content.

Facebook fan pages don’t allow similar groupings of fans. (Profile pages, which some agencies set up before fan pages caught on, do allow “friend” groupings.) And many people far prefer Facebook to Twitter.

So, use Twitter lists as a starting point. Group followers and begin to tweet content which those groups will find interesting. But also use the lists to gather more comprehensive input—to create surveys, even to simply ask your friends and fans on other social networks what they would like to see from you and how often they would like to see it. As in real life, you won’t be able to meet every request. But you will be able to match community needs much more closely than if you had assumed what was needed.