The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 2 | Issue 8 | August 2009

Using Social Networking to Reach the Public

twitter's logo In world history there have been few fundamental shifts in how people move through society, but right now such a shift is occurring. For centuries, people were introduced and became connected face-to-face. Today social media outlets provide unparalleled levels of information sharing and social networking. Nielson Media reported that “the number of social media users has increased 87 percent since 2003, and surpassed e-mail use for the first time in February” and “in the past year, the time spent on social networks increased 73 percent” according to a May 2009 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Though research indicates that a well-crafted social web site (catering to learning styles—friendly with story-based articles fact sheets and interesting video and audio) can have a huge impact, the nature of that impact can have either a tremendously useful or dangerously detrimental effect.

If an event occurs, word travels the Internet instantaneously. With new technologies and cheap bandwidth, anyone with a basic understanding of website creation and search engine optimization can produce a site in mere hours. Cameras and software can shoot and lift video to You Tube in minutes. The danger is that an organization devoted to misinformation might control public opinion faster and better than a public agency.

San Antonio police encountered this problem when an impostor set up a fake San Antonio Police Department account. Though mostly harmless, the twitterers (as Twitter account holders are known) used the official seal of the police department on their page and posted law enforcement themed-tweets (Twitter posts). Although the department successfully had the account removed from Twitter, their experience illustrates the potential dangers in the new era of information sharing. If the department had already made their own official Twitter, the fake account would never have deceived the citizens of San Antonio. Thus, having social networking account can prevent risks to public safety.

Additionally, social networking sites allow government agencies to reach out to their public like never before. Story-based articles, fact sheets, audio and video provide users with a personal, comfortable and meaningful experience. In the words of a writer for Advertising Age Magazine, “Brands need to have a personality and be someone that people want to be friends with.” Law enforcement agencies are all brands, and in many cases their images could be improved. Police departments are increasingly creating Facebook and Twitter accounts to reach their public in new ways. The personal profile elements of Facebook give a human quality to departments by listing personal interests and favorite quotes and allowing members of the public to be-“friend” them. Meanwhile the limited text and mass broadcast of Twitter posts allow agencies to keep their citizenry informed up-to-the-minute. As Lakeland, Florida’s Assistant Police Chief Bill LePere told CNN. “Expecting the local print media to pick [a tradiotional media release] up and run it in the newspaper tomorrow is 24 hours too late.”

CNN.com reports that “public safety officials are finding the use of sites to be not only speedy but a convenient way to distribute press releases, amber alerts, road closings, and suspect descriptions.” Twitter accounts provide users with major updates in 140 characters or less and links to more detailed information can be posted as well. Better yet, sites offer a free avenue for disseminating information in a tough economic climate. Thanks to advertising, neither the twitterer or the follower need to pay for the communication thereby eliminating cost barriers that might otherwise prevent valuable information spreading.

The experiences of police departments from Boston, Massachusetts to Chatanooga, Tennessee (both of which have Twitter accounts) illustrate that social media can be of great value to law enforcement agencies. Social media sites are a perfect outlet for community policing as they allow for both outreach and prevention. Websites provide social tools that let agencies communicate with and engage their public. By forming even casual electronic relationships with residents, departments are able to improve their status and stature within the community. Furthermore sites like Twitter and Facebook provide a private forum for members of the community to communicate valuable information about a suspect or simply their public safety concerns to the police. Information sharing with the public has always been a priority of law enforcement. Yet never before has opportunity for a direct dialogue with the public existed on such a vast scale. Social media enables agencies to accomplish preexisting operational goals by facilitating the transfer of specific and targeted information in efficient and innovative ways.

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