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Control The Message, Not The Social

Not long ago I saw a Facebook status update from a law enforcement resource that said something to the effect of, “With social media, take control of the news media.”

I knew what they were trying to get at. There isn’t a cop alive who can’t tell a story about how the media mis-reported something the police said or did. Ratings are king; accuracy is collateral damage.

The easy answer to this: social media, if you’re willing and able to put the time into it, offers a way to put an end to the madness. Tell your own story; show what traditional news media do not; correct what they get wrong.

But that’s not the same as “taking control” of the news media. Controlling the media is not like controlling an unruly subject, or a whole crowd of them. Even if their words and actions do call into question whether they, like a mob, aren’t stopping to think... the truth is, you can’t control the media. You can only control your message and its delivery. And that’s a lot more complicated than a simple “no comment” during a critical situation.

Over-controlling your message can lead to the perception that you’re hiding something. Yes, reporters understand that you can’t release information about an active case, especially if it’s a critical situation.

But in the absence of information, during a ratings chase or in an effort to out-report the competition (and competition IS a big factor in this age of shrinking newsrooms and budgets), any tidbit becomes enticing. Rumors start to fly. The agency’s actual message, during or after the incident, can become lost in the fray. Social media only make this worse, as they accelerate and disperse rumors to a much greater extent than ever before.

There’s a better way, and it’s not shrugging your shoulders and figuring, “Oh well... them’s the breaks.” You deserve better, your community deserves better.

Social media builds relationships

During a recent interview with a veteran crime reporter, I was asked about whether law enforcement agencies could and should use social tools to broadcast their own news to the reporters following the agencies. Yes, I said, but... they’re kind of missing the point.

I see too many agencies using Twitter and Facebook as broadcast tools. The fact is, these tools are relationship-building tools. You use them the same way you’d use a luncheon meeting or coffee-break small talk: to bond with people, to establish those small roots that lead to growing trust and abundant, fruitful relationships.

Good cops know that they can’t work effectively, share information, without knowing the people they’re sharing it with. So it is with the media. Remember two points:

1. You need the media. Like it or not, in a crisis, they’re the ones who get the word out the fastest.

2. Don’t think “the media.” Don’t even think “reporters.” Think “community.” News media don’t serve the community in the same way you do, but they do serve. They provide information and they can help save lives -- but only if they have the right information, which is even harder for them to do in this age of the instant update.

It’s the little things

If you have reporters following your Twitter stream, liking your Facebook page, subscribing to your YouTube videos and commenting on (or using in their stories) your blogs, build on their attention. As I told my interviewer, you may not have the time to take them to lunch or even to coffee... but you can make time for smaller gestures, including but not limited to:

  • Notice which of your social content they’re using in their stories. Invite them to follow up for a more in-depth interview.
  • Notice which of your content they aren’t using. Ask what kinds of stories they are working on, and what they need to tell them.
  • Re-tweet, like, share their stories. Even if they aren’t related to public safety, stories that promote community deserve attention.
  • When they treat a story fairly and with the kind of balance you want to see, give them public kudos.
  • During a crisis, when they get things wrong (because nearly everyone does), gently correct them.
  • Involve them in crisis follow-up and in future drills, specifically with regard to their take on social media and their audiences.

Building this foundation of trust before you need it means it will be easier to correct rumors (or even communicate proactively to ward them off).

Reporters are like in-laws

Your relationship, granted, may always be a little bit tense. But think of reporters like your in-laws: you agree to disagree with their opinions so that your kids don’t see you fighting with the grandparents, aunts or uncles they love. You model the right behavior.

This takes work, many family gatherings and even a few misunderstandings. It takes consistency and patience and faith, lots of small gestures made over time. You may even have to start fresh as reporters rotate beats or leave jobs or change positions. And it may take creativity to notice changes in reporters’ treatment of your agency, at least at first.

Sure, some reporters have massive chips on their shoulders, just like some family members are completely psychotic. But the majority are, like you, overworked and underpaid. Make their jobs easier and they’ll do likewise -- so that when the situation demands you resort to command and control, they’ll respond the way you’ve so often wished they would.

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