Police can’t do their job without public trust, and the battle for that trust is being fought online.
The events of summer 2020 and the ongoing friction between police and community have challenged the dynamics of policing as we know it. Departments are dealing with a multitude of issues as a result — budget cuts, low morale, recruitment difficulties and even violent protests. Beyond what we see at face value is a deepening crisis of trust, one that is dangerous to the foundations of policing. That’s because at their core, police are members of the public who have been given the mandate to protect us all. And when trust is weakened, ultimately so is police legitimacy.
To make things worse, much of the battle for public trust isn’t taking place in our familiar streets and neighborhoods, it’s happening in an utterly foreign territory: social media. We’ve all seen how one interaction caught on camera can set the internet ablaze and circle the world before the captain is even notified. The disadvantage to police is glaring — social media moves quickly, public service does not. It requires a little bit of technical savvy, which is, for the most part, not something that is required in the profession. And last but not least, it requires letting go of some control, and that’s something we in policing are just not comfortable with.
Some might think the conclusion is to avoid it altogether, but in 2021 (or 2011 for that matter) that’s akin to sticking our head in the sand. If we aren’t telling our story, we can be sure others are telling it for us.
Many agencies have jumped in the water and set up a social media presence, but unfortunately tend to keep it laconic and superficial, as to allow for minimal errors but also no room for gains. While better than nothing, a completely sanitized social media presence (e.g., just photos of promotion ceremonies and cute K-9s — you know who you are) won’t help repair and rebuild community relations. What’s needed is a social media strategy that centers authentic engagement, and the following are a few places to start.
Respond and engage
Social media should be a place for interaction and not just a stage to disseminate ideas. A trust-based social media strategy will take into account requests and concerns from citizens, and try to address them when appropriate. This doesn’t mean that every comment merits a response, nor does it mean that policing priorities should be set by “likes” and “shares.” However, listening to your community online and having your ear to the ground in neighborhood discussion will allow you to see what people value and provide them service that is proactive rather than reactive.
Own your own story
A crisis will make or break you. It’s critical to be able to respond quickly to a crisis, specifically one that takes on a life of its own on social media — and we’ve seen it happen one too many times. Get ahead of your own crisis by acknowledging it online, even if you don’t have the full story. Just an initial acknowledgment and a commitment to update the public as more information is available goes a long way in ensuring that you are on top of it. Your gut reaction may be to wait until you have all your ducks in a row, but unfortunately social media doesn’t provide us that luxury. Between the public and the media, people will be narrating the crisis for you, so make sure your voice is heard early.
Use authentic language
When possible, try to avoid police language or overly formal wording. You don’t have to let loose with the memes and the LOLs, but rather try to post as if you are speaking in front of a familiar community group. This means no police jargon, no press release speak and definitely no caps lock. Keep it simple and real.
Humanize your department. Your officers are your best storytellers, and the public is very interested in learning more about them. Try to show the names and faces behind the badge as much as you can to remind your audience that the people who protect them are, well, people.
Social media of course can’t undo injustices and won’t turn around negative situations entirely. However, many departments are doing wonderful work and truly protecting and serving with the utmost professionalism, but are not putting that story out there. If you are not telling that story or are not telling it well, you’re missing an opportunity to repair and rebuild crucial ties with the community.
As seen in the April 2021 issue of American Police Beat magazine.
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