Twitter for law enforcement: Agencies and officers

Like any law enforcement tool, whatever you put into Twitter has to be worth the time and effort.

However, a custom background image both looks more professional, and allows you to communicate more information than your Twitter bio alone. @TorontoPolice's background is an excellent example: it names everyone in the agency's corporate communications unit, and directs users to other social channels like Facebook and YouTube.

An individual officer can use a custom background as a visual bio. @Mia_Ria's background depicts the Iowa sergeant with her two daughters, and skating with her roller derby team. Her tweets and bio reflect these images: funny, sometimes irreverent, and at times tender. It's a good example of how an officer can show some personality without getting herself in hot water.

Following and being followed

Facebook has “friends.” LinkedIn has “connections.” Twitter? “Followers.” These are people whose 140-character messages you choose to display in your “stream”: a fast-moving, real-time update of the news, thoughts, responses, and ideas people are sharing.

That means your Twitter presence is what you make it. An individual police officer will tweet differently than an agency, so it stands to reason that he or she will follow, and be followed by, different people (though overlap is likely to some extent—think media). If you're using Twitter personally, decide what you want to use Twitter for. Get to know other officers? People who share your hobbies and interests? News source?

Either way, focus on the people you're following, rather than on numbers. Some believe a higher follower count means you have more credibility. After all, @Boston_Police has more than 36,500 followers; @FBIPressOffice, nearly 300,000.

However, because Twitter is about relationship-building, it's best to target your followings. An official agency account holder should plan to follow news media, local bloggers, politicians, other public officials, and other public safety agencies in their region.

An officer who is tweeting in an official capacity (say, a fraud investigator or victim services advocate) will want to follow individuals in his or her own community, plus other professionals, nonprofit agencies and even vendors who support what they do—the better to have fresh information to retweet.

And remember that the people you want to build a relationship with, may not be all that interested in building a relationship back. As with any new friendship, build by making your messages about them—not you and your perspective.

Tweeting (and retweeting): Twitter conversation

A “tweet”: those 140-character messages. Tweets got a bad rap early on when people who couldn't think of anything to say, but still thought they should share something, began to share the mundane. Breakfast. Toothpaste brands. Petty annoyances.

Tweets like this dilute the real power of the tweet. Compressing a sentence into just 140 characters forces you to distill a thought into its purest form. An example from my stream: “I just completely rewrote an entire blog post. Amazing what we need to start with, before we can get to what we need to say.”

There could easily have been more to that thought, and I'm naturally wordy because I like to explore many different angles when writing. But the short form of a microblog made me figure out the most important points—and gave rise to a conversation with a few of my followers.

Precede a tweet with @username--@christammiller, @OfficerCom, @frankborelli etc.--and now you're speaking directly to a person (or more). Start a new conversation, or respond to something they've said; this is how whole conversations can take place on Twitter. It goes easier when you make an effort to login and pay attention to what's going on from day to day.

Also, the retweet: Read someone else's tweet that made you laugh, or a news article you think your followers would enjoy? The retweet lets you share another person's news or thoughts. They look like this:

RT @gutterchurl: excellent post from @christammiller!… [Post-conference strategies for getting more value]

(You can also use “MT” for “modified retweet” when you need to edit a tweet so it will fit in under 140 characters.)

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