Now do you recognize the power of social media?
Within weeks, social media activism has managed to drastically shift the national conversation around policing and public safety
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit What would Peel do? | Social media’s power | Promoting transparency, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
By Yael Bar-tur and Mathew Rejis
There is not one police agency in the country that hasn’t been affected by the tragic death of George Floyd and the national outcry that followed, primarily fueled by social media.
Within weeks, social media activism has managed to drastically shift the national conversation around policing and public safety. Very quickly the conversation overflowed from Twitter and into your city streets and town councils, impacting everything from police recruitment to budgets, not to mention the morale of your officers.
None of this is new to you, and you’ve experienced it before; every time a terrible anomaly in policing that has nothing to do with your specific agency is caught on camera and spreads like wildfire online. When that happens, you are Minneapolis. You are Ferguson. And your officers find themselves on the front line of a battle they have no idea how to handle. What makes this specific instance different, however, is the speed at which it continues to evolve online.
In a time when public information crises are more common than most critical policing incidents, why are most police departments still treating social media as an afterthought?
Departments must start viewing public information, and social media especially, as an integral tool in policing, rather than a public relations endeavor or a “nice to have.” Communication builds and maintains trust, and allows you to preserve the faith your community has entrusted in you to protect its safety. However, just because you have a social media account, doesn’t mean you are using it correctly. Many departments are not even close.
Social media needs a messaging strategy and one that closely aligns with your agency’s overall strategy. It needs sufficient staffing by officers and/or civilians who are solely committed to it and can be in tune with it 24/7 since timing is everything in this medium. Those people need to be fluent in the language of social media and constantly adapt and optimize your messaging to fit the masses, and reach people beyond your immediate supporters.
A few late-night whispers on Twitter – laced with misinformation – can quickly become a formalized conversation by the next morning and action by the afternoon. The 2015 Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing went so far as to dedicate a pillar of the findings to not just the importance of having a social presence, but ensuring the personnel staffing those positions fully understand the power of the medium, and that was five years ago!
Agencies also need to stop thinking of social media as an extension of their press relations arm, or as a platform to only connect with journalists. If you do so, you are limiting yourself to reactive messaging, and not unleashing the full power of the platforms.
The goal of social media is to create your own stories and engage directly with your communities, without the need for a filter or “courier.” Use social media to break your news and tell stories through the eyes of your officers, as well as connect with residents about what they want, and at times, need to hear, and not necessarily what will make the nightly news.
Social media done right requires a commitment to transparency, conversation, timeliness and yes, a certain amount of relinquishing control. It may sound scary, but a reality without it is scarier. These conversations are currently happening without you, shaping your narrative and potentially the future of public safety in your communities.
If you’re not telling your story or shaping your narrative, someone else is.
About the authors
Yael Bar-tur is a social media consultant who previously served as the director of social media and digital strategy for the New York City Police Department where she developed her own strategy and training guide for social media and policing. She has trained hundreds of members of service on the use of social media, both in the NYPD and in other agencies. She is also responsible for exploring new channels for the NYPD and creating viral videos with millions of views.
Born and raised in Israel, Yael served in the Israeli Army as a foreign press liaison in the height of two wars and was also a reserve duty soldier in the Israeli mission to Haiti immediately following the 2010 earthquake. She holds a master’s degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where she wrote her thesis on police use of social media. In 2016, she was named one of the International Association of Chiefs of Police “40 under 40,” recognizing 40 law enforcement professionals under the age of 40 from around the world that demonstrate leadership and exemplify a commitment to their profession. In 2018, Yael was awarded the Hemmerdinger Award for Excellence for distinguished public service by the New York City Police Foundation.
Mathew Rejis currently serves as the Senior Public Communications Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department and is responsible for developing the LAPD’s social media strategy, and training personnel on the use of social media. Before joining the LAPD, Officer Rejis worked for a Los Angeles-based advertising agency building digital ads and developing a social media strategy for clients. Follow LAPD on Twitter.