If you don’t know a lot about social media, chances are you find it slightly intimidating. And if you are more familiar with it, well, you probably find it very intimidating.
No matter their level of involvement with the medium, most people today are well aware of its pitfalls. From being “canceled” to going viral for the wrong reasons to users yelling over each other behind their screens, social media seems more of a battlefield than a town hall recently. Nowhere is this more apparent than in policing, a topic so heated that it seems to spark emotions in anyone at any time.
All of the above may seem like good reasons not to engage on social media at all, but the reality is that not being on it is far scarier. If police departments and law enforcement agencies aren’t engaging online, other people are telling our stories for us. And as much as we may want to pretend that messaging isn’t the most important part of policing, we have learned over the past few years — and in 2020 especially — that the public view of our police departments is critical and can influence everything from officer morale to deep budget cuts. Where does this leave the police department that is running on fumes and has not yet tackled the dreaded “Get on social media” item on its to-do list? The bad news is that the longer you wait, the more you risk finding yourself in the national spotlight, whether justified or not, with no ability to fight back in the online arena.
The good news is that although it may seem overwhelming, there are a few small steps that any police department can take today, regardless of its budget or size, in order to create a foundation for effective social media communications.
1. Find a PIO, or someone similar
Every police department should strive to have at least one full-time public information officer. Ideally, they will be well-versed in both policing and media, as well as masterful at social media, and will insist on being paid a lower-than-market salary. If that’s not possible for you, that’s OK. Every agency has at least one person, whether sworn or non-sworn, who can help an executive get set up with social media, guide them through the process and assist with posting. For much of your workforce, particularly the younger employees, social media may be second nature, and you are sure to find at least one person on your payroll who can help with onboarding. Don’t necessarily go for the “tech guy” or the one you call on to fix your computer. Pick someone who is a good writer, a fast thinker and, most of all, responsible. If this person is posting on your behalf, make sure to approve all content at first so that you are easing them into the delicate role.
2. Pick your poison
Twitter? Facebook? Instagram? TikTok?? With so many social media platforms and new ones popping up every day, it’s hard to know where to start. First off, don’t try to set up all at once. Pick one and master it. This may be the shortest possible summary of social media platforms, but for our purposes it will do: Twitter is for news breaks, Facebook is for communities, Instagram skews younger and I wouldn’t really worry about anything else for now. Ask your officers and community what they use, and chances are it will be one of those three, but don’t rule out anything else that serves a niche audience (like a Chinese-language app, for example) if it is used by the majority of your residents. I recommend starting with just one account and becoming comfortable with it, as well as learning its unique language and unspoken rules. You can then move on to open other accounts and post the same content across the board, with each account getting its own customized version of every post.
The majority of people on social media don’t necessarily post; they watch and absorb, or in other words, they are lurking. After you’ve chosen a platform, set up an account, but don’t post to it just yet. Use it to watch the platform, follow relevant users, learn the rhythm and even practice with a post or two before you officially announce you have arrived. A technical word of caution: Once you are on social media, people may notice, and it’s hard to put the cat back in the bag. Consider doing your initial “lurking” before you pick a username and photo, or if you’ve already set up an account, make sure to commit to a time to begin posting so that you aren’t dormant for too long.
4. Plan and strategize
Once you are ready to start posting regularly, your growth should be slow and steady, and you should always have an overall strategy in mind. Your social media accounts are the face of your organization, and you want to be very clear about your goals in presenting this face to the public. Your messaging strategy should mirror your organizational strategy; for example, if your goal is to increase recruitment, you can build a messaging strategy to reach out to the right demographic. Your strategy can change from time to time, but it’s good to lay it out so that you aren’t just posting on a whim, but rather as part of an overall plan. Additionally, you want to incorporate social media posts into your calendar and plan some of them ahead of time. You shouldn’t plan everything in advance, but it is good to take a few moments and mark special dates like holidays, elections, ceremonies and other upcoming events you can get a head start on.
5. Set up your guardrails
From an errant tweet to a hack, a lot can go wrong on social media. However, you can minimize mistakes by setting up a few guardrails in advance. First, set a secure password and enable two-factor authentication. The two-factor authentication feature is available on every social media platform and requires an added layer of security in the form of a code sent to your phone every time someone logs in. As for posting, require that a second set of eyes go over every post, no excuses. This helps minimize typos, wrong intent or anything else that may get lost in translation. If possible, you should also insist that social media only be used on department-issued phones. While it’s not realistic to only use a computer (you want to be able to post on the go), you can limit use of personal phones as long as you have department-issued smartphones. This will set up a separation between your personal and professional data, as well as your personal and professional social media accounts.
6. Get feedback
Congratulations, you are on social media and are running smoothly. Perhaps you even have some followers outside your immediate family and have even posted a GIF or two. This is the point where you are getting comfortable, so check in with your officers, as well as people in your community, and ask them offline how you are doing. Is there content they’d like to see more or less of? Are there small structural mistakes you are making on posts? Do they like the tone? Try to have a few trusted sources give you feedback periodically, so you can continue to learn and grow, and soon you will be able to talk to people as fluently online as you do offline.
As seen in the March 2021 issue of American Police Beat magazine.
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