Social Media for cops E-mail
Written by Alejandro Alves and Yael Bar-tur   

There is an important discussion picking up speed these days on how police departments should enter social media.  But before we think about how, let’s think about what, as in “what is this social media thing?”  Because to use it well you have to understand the culture and tone of social media dialogue.  Respecting this culture is critical to getting the most out of social media for your department, and so we begin with a discussion of what social media is, and what it isn’t.

For starters, it’s big.  It is estimated that nearly half of all U.S. adults are on social media, and that number is still growing.  It’s also here to stay for a while.  The average age of the social media user is rising, because what we once thought of as a hangout for teens and young adults is actually capturing and keeping the attention of every age group, and because those of us who signed up in our younger days are pretty much sticking around.  It is pervasive, a part of our daily lives. 

More than half of Americans on Facebook log onto their accounts at least once a day, if not more often, and about a third of Twitter users do the same.   One quarter of 18 to 34 year olds log on through their mobile devices before they even get out of bed in the morning.

But what any organization needs to realize is that social media’s sheer size and popularity are not the whole story.  At first glance the social media sphere looks like marketing gold; millions of Americans gathering in one place to check things out online.  But we (yes, we both fall squarely in that wake-up-to-Facebook category…) aren’t there just looking to find marketing messages about our favorite products.  This is the critical point that police department’s entering social media must understand – social media isn’t just a new place to post a message, it’s a place for a different sort of engagement altogether.

Social media is where we get much of our news and information, outpacing television and newspaper as the top source for local news among adults younger than 40.  But it’s also where we catch up with our friends, where we share pictures of our kids, where we have conversations and voice our opinions, and where we just plain hang out.  We are not there just to listen, but to participate as well, and social media gives us each a voice to do so.  In this hyper-connected arena the traditional roles of broadcaster and audience are muddled.  The audience is connected to itself.  The general population receives a message, but also converses amongst itself to move information and opinions.  This user-generated content takes on a very human tone of voice.  It sounds like conversation, not like a commercial.

Police departments beginning to build a presence on social media must respect this culture of conversation and interaction, because the social media user doesn’t log on looking for your public relations campaign.  A traditional press release is not what makes us grab our iPhones to check Facebook and Twitter as soon as we wake up.  That’s not what makes us hit the “like” or “follow” button, or captures our attention.  We are looking for entertainment, for humor, for engagement and interaction, for two-way participatory conversations, and most of all for authenticity – and as social media becomes more and more a part of daily life, we are getting very good at ignoring what does not sound like authentic engagement.

The good news is that authenticity can come naturally to the police profession, with just a little work at it.  We’re betting not many cops out there signed up for the fame, fortune and popularity the job brings.  Police officers believe in the job they are doing.  The desire to connect with and serve the public is genuine.  More broadly, police departments already understand the value of engaging with a community to build trust and partnership.  So in some sense, calling social media a new conversation or a new phenomenon is not quite accurate when it comes to police.  It is a new tool, but it can and should build on engagement practices stretching all the way back to Peel’s principles, and the foundations of

This is a natural advantage over most other organizations on social media.  As a police department online you don’t have to sound like corporate marketing.  You can sound authentic – can be authentic – rather easily online, because you aren’t there to turn a profit, but to improve a public service that you already provide, and that society already values.  You don’t have to sound like you are trying to sell me something, because unlike so many other entities on social media today, you actually aren’t.  

So when you think about establishing a social media platform don’t envision a microphone and PA system for broadcasting; don’t think about public relations and traditional marketing.  Social media is much more like a phone than it is a loudspeaker; a tool for two-way conversation that connects to the living rooms, backyards, cafes, pubs and parks in your communities.  Put down the loudspeaker, and start having a genuinely engaging conversation.

Alejandro Alves and Yael Bar-tur are recent graduates of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  Their capstone public policy research focused on social media strategies for major-city police departments, developed through yearlong work with the New York City Police Department, the Kennedy School’s Program on Criminal Justice Policy and Management, and interviews with a variety of criminal justice scholars and social media experts.

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Comments (1)Add Comment
Great article
written by Tim Burrows, September 03, 2012

You have captured the essence of what social media is and how important it is for police and law enforcement to be taking an active role in its use. Most important in this, you have shown that it is best used as a toll for engagement and conversation, not just broadcasting.

All too often, our industry has found a shiny new toy and tried to mold it to our use. Social media by its nature will fail for anyone who takes this attitude. Law enforcement needs to use social media how it is intended and made to be used, and that is simply, how the world uses it. For an agency or individual to truly appreciate the power of social media, the must first understand the basic culture within it. That culture is simply, the importance of others, not the individual. It is what works best for the masses to make the space more enjoyable for all.

Kudos to you!

Tim Burrows

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