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PIOs: Are You Prepared For Your Agency's 'Personal Brands'?

Last month, Jim Garrow of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health tweeted me about an article he'd blogged. In it, he noted:

“(Toronto PD Deputy Chief Peter Sloly) implored public safety agencies to consider ways to protect their officers from, for lack of a better word, internet-infamy... recordings of police will continue, and because of the lack of context in those videos, even folks doing their jobs correctly can find themselves on the wrong side of viral pop culture. All of us, as PIOs, need to realize that one day, it will be our employees in front of those cameras, not just the police. Learning to prep now is simply the prudent thing to do."

Guiding Philadelphia police via one of their own

For the Philadelphia Police Department, “learning to prep” recently included asking a tweeting detective, Joe Murray (@TheFuzz9143), to stop what he was doing so that they could put policy and training in place.

Important: this was not a punishment, nor a way to control Murray's message. Rather, department administrators recognized the value in what he was doing, and used the two months he was offline to build a program around his activity. As a recent Daily Pennsylvanian article explained:

(Philadelphia Police Director of Communications Karima) Zedan commends Murray on his ability to connect with people. PPD hopes to use Murray as a model for other members of the department. Murray will be involved in a pilot program in which a small group of officers and detectives will be taught to effectively use Twitter. “We are very excited to see what Joe Murray can bring us,” Zedan said.

Previously, a article had described what Murray was already bringing:

Mike Lyons, cofounder of the community website, says Murray's online accessibility and conversational tone soften the department's image and break down barriers between cops and residents. 

"A lot of times you don't hear people talk positively about the police," Lyons said. "But in West Philly you do - and I think he's a big part of it. You almost feel like the guy has your back, the way he talks online."

For himself, Murray was quoted as saying, “It makes no sense to me to watch sitting ducks walk into a robbery pattern that I know about but they don't." However, his style is more than that. Both and the Daily Pennsylvanian relayed how he's inspired his communities to “often relay crucial information to him for his cases” and organize more focused neighborhood watch efforts.

Also notably, PPD wasn't new to social media. As early as 2010 they had redesigned their website and included Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube accounts; their social media work became important to how they monitored and responded to 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests in their city. And so Murray's Twitter account simply added a new dimension to their existing efforts.

Was it necessary to take two months to deal with that dimension? In my view, absolutely (and agencies with no social media presence should expect to take much longer). Philadelphia's recent history includes the 2008 shooting of Officer Patrick McDonald, as well as violent flash mobs in 2010 and 2011, all of which inflamed existing racial tensions between police and public.

Thus as positive as Murray's efforts are—the opposite of what every police administrator fears—without policy and training, it would've been just as easy for him to undo all the strides PPD had already made.

How do you prep for officers being in the media spotlight?

Murray's Twitter work has garnered considerable media attention, so Jim Garrow's original point—“Learning to prep now is simply the prudent thing to do”—requires careful consideration. He was kind enough to share with me ideas on what to think about:

1) Train. “First your officers need to understand what social media can do to them,” says Garrow. “A video of the infamous (Toronto) Officer Bubbles incident (see link below) will demonstrate how even an officer operating well within his rights and responsibilities can go terribly wrong. A frank discussion of how (officers') actions can be misinterpreted and why they need to be on their very best behavior and demonstrate respect and patience in all situations is key.”

Part of this discussion: understanding that social media users are not comparable to traditional media. “Many members of the media know better than to expect in-depth information from officers, and usually depend on the PIO,” Garrow explains.

“(But) the vast majority of social media users (even the self-appointed citizen journalists) don't have the experience or desire to do this. They see an officer and start firing questions. And keep firing.” The frustration that mounts on both ends in such a confrontation is what everyone—supervisors and officers alike—need to prepare for.

2) Institute the right policies and procedures. “Supervisors, especially in high stress situations like Occupy, need to monitor their officers for frustration,” Garrow says. “If someone looks like they're going to blow their top, pull them off the line. Also, allow officers to tell their supervisors if they're about to reach their limit and let them request to be pulled from the line. If you can head off confrontation, the likelihood of negative video getting out is drastically reduced.”

3) Pay Attention. “The final step to take to mitigate social media disasters is, like G.I. Joe, to know what's going on. And that's done by conducting broad-based social media monitoring on as many networks as is feasible,” says Garrow.

“Because of the focus on video, this is not an easy or automated search. It includes targeted searches of YouTube, UStream and Bambuser. The sooner these videos and social media ambushes are identified, the sooner they can be addressed by the department and mitigated.

“This can be done in the mass media or directly on the social media network. Care should be taken, though, as not all comments or videos need to be addressed. A tool like the USAF commenting flowchart can be helpful in figuring out when, and how, to reply.

“Even if your officer does everything right: spirit and letter of the law, with respect and humility, they can still be a star on YouTube,” Garrow cautions. “(But) I have to note: YouTube can be a boon, if the subject is good. An unstaged recording of heroism can do wonders for PR.”


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About The Author:

Christa M. Miller is a freelance writer based in Greenville, S.C. She specializes in law enforcement and digital forensics and can be reached at