Police Department as Media Platform

Jan. 3, 2012
It's little wonder that so many law enforcement commanders want their employees to avoid using social media. After all, social use, publicly sharing fact and opinion, effectively makes you a member of the media.

It's little wonder that so many law enforcement commanders want their employees to avoid using social media. After all, social use, publicly sharing fact and opinion, effectively makes you a member of the media. And because social statements never go away, that means you are accountable for your—and your employees'—statements both right and wrong.

And yet, citizens increasingly expect to be able to hear directly from your agency, not just in times of crisis but also when they have basic questions or comments for you. The companies they buy from already do this, so why shouldn't their governments?

Remember, public trust in government is on shaky ground. Police represent government power. So the willingness of the powerful to humble themselves reinforces the “of the people, by the people and for the people” idea of a republic.

And yes, “humbling yourself” can go too far. That's been covered. Less frequently mentioned are the ways a law enforcement agency can adapt its new media role and make it something that works in its favor.

How content serves your social (and your broader) goals

If public relations exists to establish a dialogue about an organization's image in its stakeholders' eyes, then marketing exists to change those stakeholders' behavior. Content marketing serves both goals, for better or worse.

A business uses content marketing to show customers how its product or service meets the customers' unique needs, with the end goal of turning those customers into buyers (or more loyal buyers). Whether they are marketing to consumers or to other businesses, a blend of words, images, video, email, special offers, and so on is designed to respond to customers' tastes, “pain points,” budgets, and seasonal needs.

A police department may not be looking for buyers. However, just as a business should not assume that customers know its product or service is their perfect solution, a police department should not assume that citizens understand how police will serve them—or how they in turn can help police.

A Content Marketing Institute post from earlier in December, “How to Climb the Engagement Pyramid with Public Sector Content” (find the link in the “Recommended Reading” section below), describes a three-tiered approach toward better constituent involvement in their community:

Information. “Most government bodies have an obligation to provide information about their operations or,  at the very least, provide instructions to the public about their obligations,” wrote Rahel Bailie. “To be useful, content needs to be presented in ways that cut through bureaucracy. To move constituents up the engagement pyramid, content needs to go further; it needs to create contexts.”

In a police context: You're the lieutenant in charge of the traffic division, and you have a problem on Main Street. Its collision-with-injury rate has been steadily climbing over the last five years, and because your officers are responding there more frequently, it's hurting their ability to respond to calls in other parts of the city. Drivers are complaining on Facebook and Twitter, to the extent that the local paper ran a story about it. In it, reporters interviewed business owners who complained that the traffic tie-ups hurt their sales.

You've decided to use your agency's blog to inform the public about the problem. You and the patrol captain have recorded a video explaining your agency's side, and you plan to blog weekly about calls for service to Main St. collisions compared to calls in other parts of the city. You also plan to write about those collisions' causes.

Transactions. “The goal here is to explain the context and instructions of the transaction [such as submitting an application or making a payment] clearly enough that every person who needs to complete the transaction can do so with success,” wrote Bailie. “The larger the numbers of constituents unable to complete their transactions online fewer of them will associate with the website — and the agency behind it — with frustration.”

In a police context: You think the state department of transportation might have ideas on engineering solutions, so you ask the city web designer to put together a form for citizens to submit their experiences—either as drivers on Main St., or as people who had to wait for a police response to a call for service. At the end of each weekly blog post, as well as during a TV news interview, you encourage citizens to visit the department website and fill out this form.

Engagement. “Organizations can be assured that, whatever level of transparency they feel they’ve achieved, the public generally thinks of government bodies as impenetrable mysteries,” Bailie continued. “Encouraging engagement means presenting content that presents opportunities to get involved, at opportune places on the site [and beyond].”

In a police context: The responses to your form contain some interesting insights. You now plan to use them, along with statistics about the top three causes of Main St. collisions, to design a community education campaign. You'll work with business owners as well as with the transportation department and the media to help drivers understand the traffic patterns, and what they need to watch out for to keep themselves and each other safe.

Ultimately, wrote Bailie, “The decision of whether or not to engage with a government organization is a choice on the part of the constituent; providing that opportunity is the responsibility of the organization.”

… but account for the hidden costs

Another expert content marketer, Valeria Maltoni, has written about what it takes to form an online community apart from Facebook, Twitter and other third-party social networks:

  • “practical work to integrate the new technology into existing tools
  • develop content that maps to customer needs and serves the organization
  • moderation work to facilitate conversations and information exchanges -- even more important than connecting customers to the company, it's connecting them to each other. This will begin to foster greater engagement.
  • formalization of a process to start documenting guidelines”

But because law enforcement agencies are using content and social media to build community offline—to inspire and empower citizens to help police solve problems in their own communities—Maltoni's list holds true for more than the online community.

In our above example, what the traffic division lieutenant is doing takes a lot of initiative. You have to:

  • Collect the statistics and then package them in a way that will make sense to the public.
  • Design your web form to collect the right kind and amount of data without scaring citizens into thinking you're tracking them somehow.
  • Collect and organize the data into something that you can use.
  • Present an education plan to the business owners and the media that not only makes sense, but also inspires them to become part of the solution.

Is it costlier to take this course of action, than it is to leave the status quo? Remember that the cost to your agency's reputation can be as significant as the budgetary impact. True community policing requires leadership, an up-front investment of time and resources that you can scale down as citizens begin to take more responsibility for their own public safety.

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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 [email protected].

About the Author

Christa M. Miller

Christa M. Miller is Director of Mobile Forensics Marketing for Cellebrite USA. Christa has worked for more than 10 years as a journalist, specializing in digital forensics and other high tech topics for public safety trade magazines including Law Enforcement Technology and Officer.com. Christa is based in South Carolina.

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