As a quick intro, the below post is on the topic of how organisations like the police might make better use of social media in the future. As such it’s likely to appeal mainly to those working in this field. If you’re not in that bracket and fancy reading anyway, please feel free to do so. Otherwise you have my permission to hop off this page and use the Internet to search for videos of talking dogs.
Over the past three years or so I think it’s fair to say that police forces have really awoken to the possibilities of using social media to help engage with the public. I’ve written in the past about both the general benefits of embracing new forms of communication and on how it can be useful in specific incidents, and I continue to be a keen advocate of the medium.
West Midlands Police, the Greater Manchester and Sussex forces have driven forward the expansion of emergency services using social media and we’ve seen some great examples of it being used to help break down barriers between police and public.
Taking my own force as an example, our official Twitter feed has over 30,000 followers, our Facebook page over 10,000 fans and videos on our YouTube channel have been viewed in excess of 1,400,000 times. We actively encourage officers and departments to get involved (see the ever expanding list for examples), have some of our very highest ranking officers using Twitter (ACC Forsyth and ACC Beale) and we have won national recognition for our work.
As the use of social media grows, both by police forces and the public, where might we take the medium in the future? How might we improve our usage and by doing so, improve upon the service we can offer to the public?
Below and in no particular order are a few of my thoughts on where I see opportunities to make fuller use of social media by emergency services, partner agencies and their users. Not wanting this blog to be too long, I’ll try be brief and encourage feedback from anyone with an interest in the area:
- Improve direct communication between police leadership and public – One of the key benefits of social media is that it affords us the opportunity to make use of a two way channel of communication between police and public. This can be particularly useful when employed by senior officers who are in a position to give a general overview of policing an area as they can get their message out directly to the people living in that area. To illustrate this point, I can give an idea about individual incidents from the point of view of a response officer but I can’t speak for the Walsall LPU as a whole as I’m not in a position to do so. Superintendent Fraser, however, can do so and makes good use of Twitter to keep the public informed about developments in Walsall. Other excellent examples of social media being used at this level are Superintendent Payne and Chief Superintendent Bourner.
- Make better use of online beat surgeries – In the past I’ve ran a couple of ‘Tweet & Greet’ events (see here for an example) during which I’ve taken over a Twitter feed for an hour and encouraged people to ask questions live. These have been very successful and shown the potential for involving people who may not otherwise have contact with the police. Whilst opportunities to meet officers at beat surgeries are invaluable, virtual meetings can run alongside conventional events and help build closer bonds between neighbourhood teams and those living in the neighbourhoods.
- Closer ties between social media and investigations, appeals – Amongst the many applications of social media, one that is perhaps the least developed is the potential for the use of the direct channel of communication to help investigate crime. Traditional poster appeals and door to door enquiries can be supported by social media campaigns that not only have the capability to reach more people but also can be targeted at a specific audience. During our response to the riots, Operation View made extensive use of the website to publish CCTV stills for identification with the public encouraged to contact us and help with the investigation. For future investigations, the application of Facebook and other such sites should feature early on as a formal part of investigations to help identify witnesses etc.
- Share knowledge internally – Social media works well for sharing information with the public but equally so can be used to communicate with staff inside the organisation. We already have good examples of it being used in this manner with DCC Thompson maintaining a blog to update staff on issues concerning the force and with Inspector Brown’s mental health blog featuring a Q&A written for the benefit of police officers. Facilitating communication within the force can be of great use (I’ve lost count of the amount of times of contacted PC Jennings through Twitter with traffic law questions) and it’d be beneficial to identify other posts and departments which could use social media to help further understanding of their roles.
- Make better use of Facebook – As far as social media sites go, Facebook is by far the biggest, most used network with three quarters of the UK population holding an account. Twitter is important too although at the current time, there are less than half the number of Twitter users than there are those on Facebook hence when it comes to where efforts are best concentrated, it would appear that Facebook is the site we should be focusing on.
- More work to publicise social media accounts – Regularly updating a Twitter feed or Facebook page with good quality information is all very well but if it only reaches a small amount of people, how useful is the service? Once forces have identified people and departments interested in using social media, there needs to be some proactive work to help bring the account to the public’s attention and attract followers.
- Appeal for more users within force – Looking at how the use of social media has grown within the force and speaking to other partner agencies using it, it becomes apparent that the growth is not necessarily even. Some departments have taken to it readily, others less so and I think this can partly be explained by the fact that the best profiles are maintained by those people who are open to the idea of using social media and are keen to explore it. Such people are not necessarily evenly distributed hence neither will the accounts be. As social media becomes more established (something helped greatly by more senior officers using it), coverage will likely improve with it being accepted that it is through social media that the majority of the public communicate and so it is beneficial to maintain an online presence.
- Help officers understand social media – Even if police officers do not use social media themselves, an understanding of how it works is important when it comes to investigating reports of crimes being committed through the use of social networking sites. Without such an understanding officers are likely to find themselves at a disadvantage with the quality of an investigation being limited by a lack of knowledge about how social networks operate and what steps can be taken to prevent offences.
- Be adventurous – Social media sites are constantly updating themselves and call upon us as users to be ready to play around with the new features to make the most of what the sites offer. We need to be alive to the new features added and be quick to work out how best we can use them to help advance our ambitions. Chief Inspector Blakeman, as an example, has made innovative use of online broadcasting (Bambuster in particular) to inform people in Coventry about what their police is doing and really leads the field in this area.