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The Social Media - Police Branding Relationship

On the LinkedIn group “Social Media in Policing” not long ago, was a discussion around the question: Can/should an individual police force promote itself as a a discrete brand apart from “law enforcement” as a general concept?

The author went on to ask:

“Do the public care about individual police forces or are they (the police) perceived as one general homogeneous entity? 

“If you are engaging [with] the police does it matter about subtle force distinctions or is a uniform (sic) approach all that matters?

Is it worth the investment by the forces to all go down individual social media strategy and engagement paths?”

The basics of branding

If you associate branding with business, consider this: a business' brand is more than its logo (patch, badge), product/service (enforcement of laws), colors (blue, green, brown) or packaging (cruiser color and design).

Your brand is also how you come across, the way your customers (the public) perceive you, the emotions they associate with you when they hear your organization's name or see your logo and colors.

Do the public care about individual police forces or do they perceive police as one homogeneous entity? Both. People might distrust police as a whole, but live in a community whose law enforcement agency inspires trust and cooperation. Conversely, people can respect police in concept, but not the officers who serve their community.

Either way, the uniform, badge, patch, cruiser, and other visuals inspire emotional response, not by themselves, but because of the people behind them.

Three ideas follow: first, that social media are only a part of the “branding” conversation. How police interact online can't be dissociated from how they interact offline.

Second, the interactions have two foundations. Officer interactions are often based on the social “rules” in their agencies, communities, and regions. But they're also based on public expectations for  professional police, and to an extent, the things people and groups have in common.

Finally, and as a result of the second idea, officers' interactions serve a dual purpose: branding their agency, and branding police work as a whole. What they do and say reflects immediately on themselves and their agency, but it also reflects on policing as a whole. Just look at the comments on news stories about police misconduct: many come from outside the community where it happened.

The social media/ police branding relationship

So: is it worth the investment for each police department to go down its individual social media strategy and engagement path?

The group member who asked the question said no. His experience in Canada was that despite the existence of 43 local police departments and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to police outside local borders, “I have yet to ever hear a member of the public make a regional/force distinction. The police are an homogeneous organisation in the eyes of the majority.” 

On the other hand, as another commenter pointed out: “Internally, identity is important and there is a very subtle difference in which force you work for and what this means. So yes, individual uniforms and branding are important to those on a local level, regardless of public perception and then, in turn, affecting morale.”

Others pointed out that a communication strategy needed to be localized. “Policing is already a brand and individual forces are really just franchises,” wrote one commenter. “We need to protect the global police brand but you have to take account of local differences when working out communication plans.”

Which indicates that communication is, itself, part of an agency's internal identity. How the agency structures its response policies, and how the officers carry those out, can be critical to morale—in both good and bad ways. Response is a point of pride when officers feel they are living up to high professional standards, but if officers feel ineffectual, their pride suffers too.

Does that alone make social media, and agency branding, worth the investment—the amount of time and effort that needs to go into it? Back to the idea that a social media plan doesn't apart from a communication plan. Having an active Twitter feed, some cool YouTube videos, and a Facebook tipster program won't help officers' morale by themselves; if the agency invests in these but not in other forms of interaction, everyone will be thinking, “That's nice, but...”

Remember: social media is an amplifier above all else. It can either highlight the great things your agency is capable of, or (however inadvertently) display your weaknesses.

Which feeds into a third response to the questions: “Create a brand and you need to protect it.” The agency that invests in social media without integrating it into a full communications plan (or that pays no attention to how citizens talk about it, on and offline) is actually weakening its own brand. It may also indicate much deeper problems, such as the administration's inability to identify and devote resources to the true problem areas rather than the “flavor of the month.”

One agency focusing on the wrong things affects its own brand, but many agencies without a clear focus—acting independently and unaware of each other—can in fact affect the “police brand.” Is it time to revisit your interactions, online and off?