Is Social Media A Force Multiplier?

A public information or community relations officer may find that during the course of a workday -- in among the usual tasks -- the amount of information coming at them via real-time status updates is overwhelming, even with a plan to filter and manage it...


The term “force multiplier” is often more about potential than it is about reality. Vendors and the consultants who sell their products use it as a marketing buzzword, when they are trying to show you what a great fit their product is for police work. But what does it mean?

Take license plate readers. If a single patrol officer can run 100 plates in one hour as opposed to 10, the reader s/he uses is as good as having 10 patrol officers running plates. Multiply that by the number of officers on a shift and... well, you get the idea.

But that assumes several things:

  • The officer has the time during a shift to run enough plates to make a difference.
  • The officer is properly trained in the use of LPRs.
  • The agency has the resources to deal with the potential for increased arrests.

 

Force multipliers: only as good as the people using them

LPRs are a simple example. More complex are the “force multipliers” like in-car computers (more officers are out of the police building and on the street, but their attention to their surroundings is divided while they type reports).

Likewise social media. A public information or community relations officer may find that during the course of a workday -- in among the usual tasks -- the amount of information coming at them via real-time status updates is overwhelming, even with a plan to filter and manage it efficiently.

At that point, social media can only be a force multiplier when you are comfortable with more officers than your PIO or CRO tweeting and blogging -- and with your citizens, and the media, helping transmit your message (and their perception of your message).

Put another way, saying that social media is a force multiplier assumes the following:

  • The officers have the time to put into it.
  • The officers have been properly trained, not just on the tools’ use, but also in online communication.
  • The agency has the resources to deal with more information coming in, and the expectation for more information coming out.

 

A social agency needs time

You want citizens to follow along, share your information amongst themselves, help you get your message out to the entire community. But there’s a trick to that: social sharing is about what people feel will benefit their networks. Information has to feel relevant to them.

From a police standpoint, relevant information is about issues that affect people’s immediate lives -- the traffic collision on their regular commuting route -- as well as their overall quality of life: graffiti in their neighborhood, speeding cars on their road, and so on.

The appropriate time commitment to social media means that the officers take pains to identify those issues. It means combining the tools of intelligence-led policing with in-depth input from citizens themselves (remember, their perception may not match your statistics.)

The officers must then be able to discuss the issues online in such a way that shows the community they are listening. That also means that the social effort has to back up efforts to solve the problems. Otherwise, there’s no point in being “social.”

A social agency provides training

The “media” in “social media” should be a clue: social media use is part and parcel of community relations. As such, it demands clear and consistent communication from the officers using it.

This isn’t just about how to squeeze information into a 140-character tweet, how to post pictures on Facebook or Flickr, or how to use video to your best advantage. It’s also about how to monitor conversations happening on each channel, how to respond to online criticism (or worse), how to deal with a crisis of any kind (including online communication after the Incident Command System kicks in).

Social media and real-time public relations (a term coined by PR guru David Meerman Scott) go hand-in-hand. To be true community leaders, officers using social tools need training -- media training, the kind that enables them to take questions and criticism without going “off message.”

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