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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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