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Social Media 101: Putting It to Work for Your Agency

Does your department have a social media strategy? If so, is there a separate one for each of the different social media platforms? Do you and your officers understand your department’s “brand” and “image”? And are you aware of the value of “likes” and “shares” in community policing?

If you had to ask a teenager to help you understand all of this, you’re not alone; most agency supervisors are just beginning to learn the many uses and benefits of social media. So I will explain the basics of social media here and describe how your agency can use it to enhance your image and improve communications with your community.

Your agency may already have a Twitter account that you use to issue press releases and other information. But if you do not use multiple social media platforms you are not getting the most exposure for your message. And because the user groups or “audiences” are often different for each platform (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), you might be missing your intended audience.

So what social media platforms should your agency be using? The best way to reach a wide audience is to start with the three most widely used mainstream platforms.

Facebook: Facebook is massive, with 1.4 billion users each month and a global reach. It also has a very friendly user interface, which allows users (including business and government agencies) to easily post photographs, videos, and messages into a “status.” This status goes into a “timeline,” which will also appear on the timelines of your “friends” or followers.

What you don’t want to do as an agency is have “friends,” because your agency’s timeline will be flooded with information posted by those individuals. Make sure your agency sets up a “page” as an independent government agency or sub-agency. That way, your followers will see your information, but you won’t see theirs unless they comment on something you posted.

Sarasota Police DepartmentFacebook is easy for sharing posts with one click; if a user likes your photo, video, or posting, they can share it with friends. It also has a wide reach in terms of the age of its users. Facebook users range from teenagers to senior citizens who have begun to embrace Facebook because of its ease of use.

There are some excellent examples of Facebook use by law enforcement agencies. The Sarasota (Florida) Police Department (SPD) is one such agency. Genevieve Judge, Sarasota Police Communications Coordinator, who manages the SPD Facebook page, says, “Sarasota Police have benefitted greatly using social media. From solving crimes, to sharing the good news our officers do every day to just keeping in touch with our community. It's been a great resource tool to help stop rumors when they start and help share important information.”

Twitter: Many law enforcement agencies got started in social media by using Twitter, which was launched in 2006. Twitter limits what a poster can write in a tweet to 140 characters, so you need to be specific and to the point in what you write. It’s great for quick and easy updates in the field, such as a “traffic accident at 500 Main Street, avoid the area” or short announcements such as “Coffee with a Cop, this Sunday at McDonald’s on Main Street.”

Users who follow your agency can choose to receive alerts whenever your agency tweets something. Twitter is not highly interactive as far as two-way communication goes, but followers can “favorite” or “re-tweet” your messages to their own followers. You can also attach links to documents such as press releases and embed photos or short videos in your tweets.

If you want to include another Twitter user, such as a new agency, in your tweet, you can include that specific Twitter handle such as @abc7 or @coffeewithacop in your tweet. Twitter uses the hashtag (#) to track subjects or specific events. To create a hashtag of a specific event, just hit the “#” and follow with a short name such as #dispatchsocialmedia. Any user can click on the hashtagged name to see tweets related to that name. To see what people are tweeting about your agency, event, or other topic, search your hashtag on a regular basis.

Instagram: A photo-based app that lets the user upload a photo, or even short videos, Instagram has 300 million users who share about 70 million photos per day. A very useful tool for law enforcement, Instagram can help your agency manage its image and enhance the brand of your city.

The key to Instagram is to get creative and focus on what your photo is saying to the viewer. I recommend that you not upload more than a few photos in any given day. Instead, pick the very best pictures and make them as interesting and unique as you can by using the editing function. There are a number of filters that allow you to edit colors, soften, or sharpen focus, and make other enhancements. You can also incorporate several photos into a single image and upload that.

Much like Twitter, Instagram allows for #hashtag and “tagging” other users. So if, for instance, you are having a block party or other event, you could create a specific #yourpoliceevent hashtag that others can also use to link their photos of the event. Though Instagram photos cannot be easily shared by users, the Instagram application is very user friendly. It’s a safe, useful social media app to start with if your agency is just beginning to try social media.

Snapchat: The Snapchat app lets users upload photos and videos up to 10 seconds long, which can be accompanied with short comments. The photos or videos, known as “snaps,” are arranged into a chronological “story” and will stay on the user’s account for 24 hours, then be automatically deleted by the app itself. Snapchat is hugely popular with the under-30 demographic, especially college students and teens.

Snapchat allows viewers to see “moments” that a user uploads and is a bit more intimate than other apps. With Snapchat, the officer is like a reporter, giving followers a true police point of view during a “story” covering an event, rally or even a foot beat.

The Hawthorne (California) Police Department was the first U.S. law enforcement agency to officially incorporate Snapchat into their social media platform. Captain Mike Ishii says, “Using Snapchat is another way for us to communicate with our community and gives us the ability to reach a younger audience. The platform is a great way for us to tell a visual story by using the My Story feature. Putting together a mixture of quick videos and photos allows us to tell a better story that can have different themes. We currently put together different stories such as a virtual ride-along with a patrol officer, attending a police-community event, or ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’ messages.”

A drawback to Snapchat is that only one user can be logged on at a time, which prevents multiple points of view and the ability of more than one officer to post snaps at the same event. But according to Snapchat, they are working on an update which will allow multiple users in the future.

We hope this overview of social media can be helpful to agencies as a basis for further investigation. Social media is here to stay, and it provides a valuable link to your community. It not only allows you to get your message out but it also enables and encourages citizen engagement and conversation. If your agency is not using social media right now, you should seriously consider it. It’s easy—requiring only a few clicks—and can greatly benefit your public image while building community trust.

Chris Cognac
Law Enforcement Fellow
COPS Office

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