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Social Media in Law Enforcement: To Get It, You Have To Give It

The opening paragraph of a recent eMarketer article carries much implication for law enforcement:

Brand marketers want consumers to follow them to build buzz and engagement, but social media users often desire something in return. What they’ve come to expect is a good deal, but many consumers—including the most active users of social sites—are also interested in deeper engagement.

No, a law enforcement agency doesn’t offer “good deals” on the purchase of goods or services. It does, however, tend to deliver on expectation: that government communication will be, well, official. Dry. Bland. Safe. When what followers really want is more two-way interaction.

The very first law enforcement Twitter users provided that. Not a whole lot of it, but they were personable, they followed people back, and they responded to @ replies.

Then more agencies joined, and they were less comfortable with this arrangement. They posted dispatch logs, arrest information, and so forth. They didn’t follow people back, and they didn’t respond to @ replies.

Regardless of the reason for this, these agencies set up a “business as usual” expectation among followers. And no, this isn’t a bad thing. But they are missing out on some great opportunities.

Be whom you serve

Law enforcement agencies historically, and understandably, have problems opening themselves up to the public. They’d rather project strength and control, so the public will trust that when things go sideways, they’ll be protected.

Problem is, stories of cops gone sideways have eroded that trust. Police need to find other ways to project strength. Being a “trusted adviser” to the community is one way to do it . . . but that means a lot more than asking for the public’s help on identifying a robber in a bank video.

Mike Alderson, director of UK-based Open Eye Communications, writes:

The question: How do we feel our communities pain? provides good material for a moment or two’s reflection. Are we part of the community or separate and distinct from it? Are we merely enforcers or ‘the people’ in uniform . . . .

He goes on to quote a business expert who notes that managers who lead by command end up with too much on their plates, people expecting to be told what to do (and, I would add the corollary, probably resenting it).

In the business world, using social media only to provide sales misses the point. People like sales, but they want and need more.

It’s easy to think of a “trusted adviser” as the person people look up to. But if you stop and think about it, the people you trust most tend to be the ones you feel are most like you: the sergeants and lieutenants who have their officers’ backs when nonsensical directives come down along the chain. The captains and chiefs who create reasonable directives to start with, and likewise have their officers’ backs at budget time or during a crisis.

It follows, then, that just as customers want to buy from people who they feel are like them, that civilians want to take public safety direction from people rather than uniforms. Have their backs, let them know it, and they will indeed tweet your BOLOs and share your good news stories.

How can you give what you want to receive from your community?

Christa M. Miller is founder and co-author of Cops 2.0. A freelance trade journalist turned content creator and public relations strategist, she has specialized in public safety issues for the past eight years. She resides in Greenville, SC and can be reached at

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2 thoughts on “Social Media in Law Enforcement: To Get It, You Have To Give It

  1. Aloha Christa,
    Do you have a favorite eating place that you always make a point to visit at least weekly or may be even daily, even though the food is not great nor the prices exceptional? Maybe it’s the service they provide. Maybe it’s their clientele. Maybe it’s both. But you feel safe, you feel ‘good’, you feel you belong there and want to be part of it. The “it” is the feeling of being part of a “community”. That’s what law enforcement need to achieve in their relationship with the general public. We ARE part of the community. We need to break out of the”Them vs Us” mentality. And we need to strive to do so offline AND online. One should compliment the other. How we interact we the public face-to-face must be the same as we do online, and vice-versa. And the public will notice if there any inconsistencies.
    There is a big difference between policing the Internet and community policing. One can be accomplished quickly and effectively with social media/networking (if done “smartly”), the other is wrought with insurmountable challenges and the chances of success are nil.
    Law enforcement need to shift gears and think of their organization as a business whose survival is dependent on customer satisfaction.

  2. Chris, yes — I was just reading another blog about “sales-driven” vs. “market-driven” companies. Sales-driven businesses believe “if we build it, they will come,” and will, if successful, garner short-term success but not much long-term. Market-driven businesses, meanwhile, think in terms of their customers and communities and focus on building those relationships.

    LE agencies can’t make the mistake of thinking that building a community-relations program (whether on or offline) will make the public jump at working with them… they have to be willing to commit to building trust, the way the public wants and needs it, even if it is messy at times!

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