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Why (and how) police leaders should build the agency’s brand on Twitter

Twitter should be appreciated as a tool to quickly and concisely relay useful information on important topics — it costs nothing, requires only a few minutes each day, and can pay tremendous dividends

A law enforcement agency is a brand. People — most notably the citizens an agency serves — look at your agency just as they look to any other product or service. Just as a CEO wants customers to know, trust, and support their product, law enforcement leaders want citizens to know, trust, and support the agency. While it is the responsibility of every person within your agency, it is especially the responsibility of those in leadership positions to build that brand.

In the book Platform: Being Heard in a Noisy World, author Michael Hyatt offers advice on how to build, sustain, and defend a brand, whether a product, or a service like law enforcement. Hyatt addresses several strategic ways to build a brand, but one area he focuses on in particular is relevant to law enforcement: social media, in particular, the use of Twitter.

Before you dismiss this notion, realize that Twitter has more than 204 million monthly active users worldwide. While some may still question Twitter’s usefulness (especially if they have never tried using it), three key points are worth bearing in mind:

1. Twitter allows users to select topics, individuals, and companies in which they have a particular interest, and “follow” those they find most interesting and useful. Many Twitter uses rarely “tweet” (post information), they use it mostly to receive information.
2. Through the use of “hashtags”, Twitter users can “tag” their posts on topics of interest, for example, #CopsLivesMatter. Users who enter #CopsLivesMatter in the Twitter search function will see who else is posting opinions or links related to this topic.
3. Twitter has become the de-facto communications tool for grass-roots movements. Using a hashtag allows Twitter users to quickly communicate plans, or thoughts, to others.

Is your agency using Twitter to build, sustain, and defend your agency? Consider the following if your agency has — or is thinking about starting — a Twitter account.

Who Should Tweet
If only the chief of police (or even worse, their designee) is using Twitter, failure is a foregone conclusion — successful use of Twitter demands consistent use. Not a lot, just consistent — between eight and 15 posts a day for a medium-sized agency is perfect. While the chief can tweet from the agency’s official Twitter account, a personal account is better as followers will recognize that the chief is personally engaging with the community.

One or two people tweeting about an agency’s activities limits the potential engagement with community members, and is not sufficient to build a brand or a following. The strength of Twitter (and any social media platform) is based on having as many people involved as possible.

The agency should have its own Twitter account. For example, the police department for the fictional village of “Anytown USA” might have a Twitter handle “@AnytownPD.”

The use of the hashtag #AnytownPD will allow any user to post a tweet which will then be found by anyone searching “#AnytownPD.” For example, tweet about an arrest, “Great robbery arrest by @AnytownPD #AnytownPD,” will be seen not only by those who follow @AnytownPD, but by anyone who searches the hashtag #AnytownPD. (A Twitter handle and the use of hashtags are not related; a hashtag is created organically by Twitter users, and does not have to be the same name as the account.)

How can an agency maximize engagement via Twitter? Ask all command and supervisory staff to open a Twitter account -- personal or work-related -- and include “@AnytownPD” in their work-related tweets and encourage your staff to tweet relevant and useful information when appropriate.

What to Tweet
What is useful and appropriate information? A road closure or vehicle accident which could result in a citizen’s delay is useful. Knowing @AnytownPD will be attending a civic meeting tonight maybe of interest to community members. Leverage Twitter by including the handle of agencies or groups involved in the meeting if they have a Twitter account.

A good tweet would be, @AnytownChief attending tonight’s Rotary meeting at 7pm. @AnytownRotary #RotaryThe tweet will be seen by everyone who follows @AnytownRotary, and anyone who searches “#rotary” will see the tweet.

Tweets are limited to 140 characters, so they must be concise. If each supervisor and command officer is encouraged to tweet a couple of times each day, the agency’s Twitter engagement will grow and citizens will see this as an effective way to learn more about the agency’s activities.

Other valuable information to post could include links to news articles involving the agency, tweets sharing good work by officers, photos of new equipment or officers involved in community policing activities.

Tweeting in Crisis
Twitter is not only useful building the brand (or engagement), it is useful to defend the brand. If a controversial incident occurs, leaders can tweet about looking into the incident, working with other community leaders to address the topic, or otherwise inform their followers they are aware of the topic and taking action.

Twitter can be used to immediately inform others of your actions, thoughts, and plans. Tweets are too short to offer context to a situation, so don’t try. In this example Twitter is the best tool to simply inform followers that action is being taken. This isn’t the place to explain what happened, only that leadership is involved.

Twitter shouldn’t be avoided due to fear that someone will say something “stupid.” Supervisors and command staff officers who are trusted to speak for the agency at public meetings should be trusted to post responsibly. Those who are unhappy with an agency (whether the public or officers) are already using social media to voice their opinions anyway. Move on and embrace the power of engagement Twitter offers.

Twitter should be appreciated as a tool to quickly and concisely relay useful or interesting information. It costs nothing, requires only a few minutes each day, and can pay tremendous dividends. The question is not whether agency leadership wants to use Twitter, but will the public engage?

John Vanek is a leadership, collaboration, and anti-human trafficking consultant and speaker working with law enforcement agencies, non-governmental and community-based organizations, academic institutions and private sector companies. John served 25 years with the San Jose Police Department (retiring in the rank of lieutenant), holds a Master of Arts in Leadership, and is an Adjunct Professor in the Graduate School of International Policy and Management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Contact John Vanek