Develop A Social Media Presence For Your Police Force
Police forces need a strong relationship with their community in order to be effective. In days gone by this simply meant ‘bobbies on the beat’, but the increasingly digital world we live in makes police forces’ social media an essential part of their toolkit. Like any new technology, police can leverage social media to their advantage. The National Policing Digital Strategy has set out how police forces can approach their social media presence.
The core principles of social media for police
Fundamentally, social media provides the same things for police forces as it does for any brand:
- Engagement – speaking directly with the audience
- Authenticity – demonstrating alignment with the audience’s values
- Authority – demonstrating expertise
These three fundamental principles of social media affect and influence each other. The better you perform in each discipline, the more effective they will be together.
Social media is uniquely two-way, allowing an account’s audience to communicate with them directly. For police forces, this provides opportunities to gather information, speak with the community, and develop better relationships with local citizens. Online conversations matter more now than ever before, and reaching out on social media allows police forces to speak with those they might otherwise miss.
The very personal nature of social media allows you to ‘show who you really are’. This is about demonstrating your values and proving that they align with those of your audience. A police force must show that it cares about keeping people safe more than anything else in order to gain its audience’s trust.
You need to show that you’re in touch with the challenges of today, and capable of meeting them. This means demonstrating expertise in relevant fields, showing that when people have a problem, they should turn to you.
With these three core principles in mind, begin to develop strategies for your police force’s social media presence.
Laying the foundations for social media success
Police forces must be very careful with their social media presence. The costs of getting things wrong are high because the police occupy a very sensitive and important role in society. With that in mind, the first thing that police forces must do is lay a strong foundation for success.
Ensuring digital literacy
While anyone can make a social media account, there is a certain amount of skill required to run one well. An inability to use digital tools effectively not only compromises the impact of the force’s social media presence but can also reduce the force’s authority by reducing their perceived expertise. For instance, a New Zealand police force proudly posted a blacked-out photo of their new unmarked car online, only for it to be swiftly uncovered by a tech-savvy member of the public.
Identifying the force’s unmarked vehicle isn’t really a huge problem, but it does raise the question of whether the force is competent or not. If a member of the public can trivially expose information the force thought was secret, how well is the force’s data protected? It’s easy to imagine a member of the public thinking twice about providing information to the force, worried that they might be exposed by a data breach.
With this in mind, police forces must make sure that their social media is run by trained, experienced professionals. This is outlined as part of the National Policing Digital Strategy, which aims to “develop a digitally literate workforce and leadership”.
Finding the correct tone of voice
“The art of effectively using social media is arguably to balance information provision with posts that are entertaining and fun.” Police Use of Social Media, the Police Foundation.
Police forces must give people a reason to engage with them. You should do more than simply present dry data, but you needn’t adopt a jokey, inappropriate tone. Convey useful information in an interesting way, and you’ll get people’s attention. This tweet from Avon & Somerset Police combines a striking image with a useful update, as well as a call to action.
We’ve charged five more with rioting in Bristol city centre.
A sixth has also been charged with assaulting an emergency worker during the incident on 21 March.
Update – https://t.co/no9GIqre0m
— Avon and Somerset Police (@ASPolice) September 10, 2021
Combining centralised and personal social media
There are advantages to running social media centrally, under the police force’s official title. This provides authority, formality, and offers an obvious access point for users who want to engage with their local police force. However, it is often valuable for individual officers to maintain their own semi-official social media accounts (with guidelines on tone, content, and so on).
The advantage of individual officers’ accounts is that they can incorporate much more personality than the force’s central account. While they must still be professional, officers can use a more casual tone of voice, which allows them to distribute a much wider range of content. More varied content means more opportunities for engagement, ultimately improving the force’s social media performance.
— PC Joe Iles (@ASPJoeIles) August 18, 2021
PC Joe Iles is a front line police officer, but officers at all levels should be encouraged to use social media. Simon Cole, the Chief Constable of Leicester Police, uses Twitter extensively to build engagement with his community. Not only does this demonstrate activity at all levels, but it also helps him build professional relationships across different industries:
“I have found it particularly beneficial in developing partnerships with a wide range of voluntary agencies … I’ve also found that Twitter is a brilliant way for crowdsourcing ideas.” Simon Cole, ‘Why I Tweet’.
The optimal strategy for a police force’s social media presence is to combine both central and personal accounts, in order to benefit from the advantages that each option provides.
authoritative, obvious point of contact for local users, restricted to formal content.
wider range of content, more personal style, a ‘boots on the ground’ perspective.
Creating content for police social media
To achieve success on social media, police forces must give their audience a reason to engage with them. This requires a range of content types, including video, the king of social media. Content should focus on developing the three core principles of engagement, authenticity and authority.
Engagement – involving the community
The two-way nature of social media is perfect for building community engagement. This can be used for a number of different purposes. Here, we can see Avon & Somerset police soliciting information from their followers.
We’ve issued a CCTV clip of a man we want to identify following a serious sexual assault on another man in Bishopston, Bristol, on Friday 9 July (below).
— Avon and Somerset Police (@ASPolice) September 22, 2021
However, this isn’t the only way to build engagement using social media. Raising awareness of the face-to-face community-building events that the police force conducts is an important part of building engagement too.
Authenticity – the people behind the uniform
Police forces can demonstrate their authenticity by showing their community what it’s like to be a police officer. Greater Manchester Police ran a one-day Twitter account that tweeted all 2,141 calls they received for 24 hours. This highlighted just how much the police had to deal with during a single day, and the range of incidents they’re called out to.
Humour is also a great way to show authenticity, demonstrating police officers are just regular people, but it’s important to strike the right tone. For instance, a Bristol police officer appeared to be making fun of mentally ill people in 2014 after getting splattered with ice cream, a real misstep that did more harm than good. The following tweet is a much better example of how to demonstrate authenticity with a seemingly trivial incident:
My colleague thinks he’s just been mugged off for being charged an extra 40p for Two (2) dips at the Golden Arches…😂 Thoughts? 🤣 He won’t let it go either… #NotHappyMeal #ThinBlueLine 🚨 pic.twitter.com/dVTpSkrEkH
— Brick Cop©️ (@Brick_Cop) September 20, 2021
The tweet has very little to do with actual police work, but it clearly struck a chord with the officer’s followers. Several commenters voice their appreciation for the officer’s hard work, and share stories of times they’ve paid for officers’ meals. This all helps to draw police officers and the community closer together.
Authority – capability and expertise
Police forces are in a unique position to make use of criminal conduct as content. This takes careful judgement because this content must be sensitive, remarkable and provide closure. In this clip, Avon & Somerset police show first-person footage of a drunk driver’s dangerous journey around Patchway – no one is hurt, the footage is stunning, and the driver is convicted.
A drink-driver has been given a suspended jail term and a driving ban after the offence was captured on his own dashcam.
The driver can be seen to knock over signs & veer onto the wrong side of the road in the Patchway area.@ASPRoadSafety
— Avon and Somerset Police (@ASPolice) September 20, 2021
In this series of tweets, the responding officer follows up on their initial tweet with information on the subject’s arrest and their court sentence. By doing so, they demonstrate that the force is capable of finding, arresting and punishing criminals, which builds the force’s authority.
Court Result – Defendant who smashed front door found guilty at court. Issued with Community Order, Alcohol Treatment Order and a Rehabilitation Activity Requirement. pic.twitter.com/FarXJHJnis
— PC Joe Iles (@ASPJoeIles) September 6, 2021
With content that addresses these three key principles, police forces have everything they need to create a successful social media presence.
Measuring social media performance
A critical and often under-appreciated part of any social media campaign is to measure its impact. This shows what works and what doesn’t, highlights areas for improvement, and demonstrates value (which is essential for securing senior management buy-in). This is a complicated subject, and you should have a full plan of how to measure your digital marketing performance, including these broad principles:
- SMART Targets: set SMART objectives so that you have a set of goals to measure performance against.
- Key Metrics: what’s most important for you? More Twitter followers, more attendees at digital community meetings, more responses to Facebook posts? Focus on the metrics that matter most to your police force.
- Split Testing: vary your messaging to see what works best. This is particularly appropriate when you’re posting the same content several times, such as a regular event. Use more or fewer words, a video instead of a photo, and see what variant performs the best.
When measuring your social media performance, it’s essential to think carefully about the questions you need to answer, rather than piling up as much data as possible. Careful measurement lets you improve your performance, and should never be neglected!
Your police force’s social media presence
No police force should be without a cohesive, well-thought-out social media presence. These platforms are essential for reaching the community and can have a real positive impact on the force’s relationship with them.
However, a successful social media presence takes sustained effort and investment from the force. Careful, patient work is required to gain the benefits that social media can provide, so police forces should be prepared to spend significant time and energy here.