Discussion about law enforcement use of social media seems to be all over the trade media these days. It's estimated that the vast majority of police departments in the United States use social media in some form, and success stories (along with epic failures) are many. Even the IACP has an entire microsite devoted to the topic.
You may have heard people say, “Social media isn't just Twitter and Facebook.” This is true. But by the same token, social media isn't just for public communication – and neither is it just something to investigate. It's both, and more.
A truly social police department sees its constituents not only as people they serve, but as equal partners responsible in public safety. A good partnership, of course, requires communication. Naturally, this must be within reason. But that's what the 4 P's are for.
The 1st P: People
Law enforcement is all about people: the citizens you serve, the officers who serve them, the command staff who keep it all running smoothly, the politicians who make the laws. How your agency approaches social media depends on all these people.
Some constituents may prefer to connect with you on Facebook rather than Twitter or your blog. Some may really like your blog, but prefer to email comments privately instead of leaving them publicly. Still others prefer to connect in person and/or via listserv at Neighborhood Watch groups. And many may only want to hear from police via reverse 911 or SMS (text) messaging during an emergency.
Within your agency, your PIO may be gifted at dealing with reporters, but lack his usual flair on Twitter. Your chief may have a gift for writing op-ed style blog posts, or delivering her message via video. Meanwhile, there are the officers who seem to have a knack for collecting intelligence from the web, even if they aren't assigned to Internet crimes against children or gang task forces.
Finally, command staff and politicians may follow one another on Twitter and Facebook, but only in name – while they (rightfully so) do most of their heavy lifting behind the scenes, in person or on the phone.
All (and more) are valid forms of connecting with one another. But always, people work with the communication mechanisms that make their interactions easier – not what's hip or cool at the time. The Twitter landscape is littered with the graves of unused or tried-once accounts, owned by people and police departments that never got the hang of it. And need we say more about Facebook overtaking MySpace?
The 2nd P: Policy
A law enforcement agency needs a policy that covers all the different aspects of its operations: public communications, investigation, and employees' personal use (as a function of human resources, which covers recruitment as well as internal issues).
Your policy should clearly communicate acceptable use of social media tools. (Tip: don't name the tools specifically; their popularity rises and falls over short periods of time, even when it comes to the ones making most of the news.) See the “resources” section at the end of this article for links to model policies.
The policy should separate official use from personal, off-duty use. There should also be a separate policy for online investigation. It should adapt traditional investigative issues (e.g. deconfliction and proactive operations) to the online world, and take into account unique issues as well.
Beyond what the agency establishes, individuals may choose to have their own personal policies, which set boundaries beyond which the agency is legally able to enforce. Many police department employees have “close friends and family only” rules for Facebook, for example, while they make professional-only connections on LinkedIn and/or Twitter. Employees should be encouraged to decide what makes sense for them.
The 3rd P: Plan
Having a policy is not the same as having a plan: a strategy that details how you will accomplish your goals. Especially in agencies with few resources, it is important to determine how social media will fit into other operations. This means that while the plan can overarch the entire department together with the policy, it will be even more effective if it permeates each of the department's units.
Investigators, for example, should feel free to follow up on leads wherever they are; policy should cover errant “Facebooking” on duty, so that commanders can focus on plotting the mix of proactive and reactive online investigation, intelligence gathering from both social and traditional media, and analyzing the results.
Meanwhile, social media's role in public information efforts takes similar planning. This is true whether the agency is large enough to have a team of PIOs, or small enough that the officer responsible for public information also wears other hats.
Either way, command staff should consider allowing individual units to tell their own stories, highlighting the best of what traffic enforcement, investigation, community policing, the chief's office, patrol, etc. are doing. These stories may not just include information that affects the community directly, but also information about how the units keep their skills fresh: innovative training, for example, or new additions to the team.
Depending on the agency's culture, these units can be trusted to share what is appropriate on their own, without violating citizen privacy or trust. Alternatively (and perhaps preferably), a PIO can coordinate with unit commanders to tell stories that fit the agency's overall message.
Finally, planning should take into account crisis communication. Just as the Incident Command System re-tasks officers during a major emergency, a crisis of any sort – whether ICS-related or in the media – should re-task communication. A crisis communication plan works even more tightly with policy, because it ensures that only authorized representatives talk (or tweet, or blog) on the agency's behalf for the crisis' duration. Further resources are linked at the end of this article.
The 4th & Final P: Play
Yup, you read that right. After you've instituted the foundation of a policy and the framework of a strategic plan, it's time to relax. Focus less on the word “media” and more on the word “social”; remember that the way people communicate and interact frequently goes beyond what's expected (for better or for worse).
Trust that your policy and your planning, having taken into account the people in your agency and community, will help everyone understand how to handle the “for worse” side of that equation. (Be sure to train for those situations, too.) Once you have those in place, experiment with different types of content and conversation. See what draws the most traffic to your website, generates the most discussion on Twitter and Facebook, what everyone seems to appreciate most. Be sure to track these numbers, so that you have data rather than subjective ideas.
Another important element of play: flexibility. Neither your community nor your agency will be the same a year from now. Social media use changes rapidly, and the truly social police department will be able to adapt on the fly. But rigorous SOP-like policy and planning won't help.
Appropriate social media use in law enforcement is complex. However, numerous resources are available to help commanders work out policies and plans that afford them the flexibility they need to communicate and investigate most effectively in their communities, towards the partnerships that all good community policing seeks to establish.
- Cops 2.0
- IACP Center for Social Media
- 3 Model Policies for Social Networking Support
- Ten Basic Steps to an Easy & Effective Crisis Plan
- Social Media Crisis Management
About The Author:
Christa M. Miller consults on public relations and marketing for the digital forensics and law enforcement communities. She is founder of Cops 2.0, the longest-running blog covering social media and high tech use in law enforcement. She resides in Greenville, SC and can be emailed at Christa@ChristaMMiller.com.