5 steps to refine your COVID-19 social media strategy

Social media is the most effective community outreach tool PDs have during this pandemic, but online messaging comes with several challenges

Social media is a key tool for maintaining a connection to your community and delivering vital information during the coronavirus outbreak. But managing social media successfully during this complex time comes with several challenges – from striking the right tone to keeping your message fresh during this national emergency that could potentially last for years.

Follow these five steps to effectively use social media during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Avoid fear-based messaging

Policing a population under these unique circumstances – particularly in terms of thorny issues like shelter-in-place orders – is an unprecedented challenge for law enforcement. Whether you’re offering safety suggestions or reminding the public of government mandates, avoid using fear-based language.

Keep things positive, empathetic and hopeful. “Safer at home” has a more positive connotation than “shelter in place,” for example. “Physical distancing” may be a more effective term than “social distancing” for the same reason.

“People freak out when you say ‘social distancing,’” crisis communications expert Judy Pal, who provides media training to public safety agencies, said. “They think, ‘What do you mean, I can't socialize?’ We can still socialize, but in a different way.”

Instead of telling people what they can’t do, provide helpful tips like an infographic on how to properly use a mask or what staying six feet apart actually looks like. Empower people – don’t dictate to them.

“People's ears close as soon as you say, ‘Don't do that,’” Pal said. “I encourage law enforcement to tell people what they can do. When you empower people to do something, they feel less victimized.”

2. Don’t be tone deaf – especially with humor

We all need a laugh during this difficult time, but it’s important to use warm humor and avoid anything that could be considered caustic. Here’s a great example from the Farmington Police Department in Minnesota:

Tone deafness also extends to how you present yourself to the public in terms of following health guidelines during the pandemic. If you’re filming videos or taking photos for your social media pages, are members of your department keeping a safe distance from each other in that content? Are they wearing masks? Here’s a great example from the Richmond Heights Police Department in Ohio of how to encourage safety in a positive way:


We look forward to the day when we don’t have to wear these masks but will continue to do so to keep ourselves and our...

Posted by Richmond Heights Police Department on Friday, April 24, 2020

If you aren’t already, it’s important to discuss your brand and voice with everyone who is managing your social media – sensitivity and consistency is paramount to success.

There are updates about this outbreak every day, but it’s important to balance COVID-19 information with other necessary messaging. You don’t have to abandon staples like #9PMRoutine or social media holidays; just be mindful that in some cases you’ll need to acknowledge the crisis in these posts – COVID-19 doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

3. Keep it fresh

One of the greatest challenges during this indefinite crisis is battling message fatigue. You’re going to be saying the same things for months or potentially years so it’s vital to find new ways to say them or you risk getting tuned out. The Central Marin Police in California came up with a clever way to say “safer at home,” for example:

Consider different ways of illustrating what six feet apart looks like. You could even make it regional; is your town big on baseball? How many baseballs does six feet look like?

“The departments that are doing well right now are messaging things that resonate in their communities – that their communities understand,” Pal said.

4. Stay in your lane

Remember your informational role in this crisis. Stay in your lane.

“Most of the information about the pandemic isn't coming from police. It's coming from your health organizations. It's coming from your mayor's office,” Pal said. “You need to figure out as law enforcement, ‘What can we talk about?’”

Alerting your community to coronavirus-related scams, illustrating how your agency is keeping the public safe and staying on top of rumors are examples of what you should post on social media. Keep an eye on community chatter on sites like NextDoor and reach out when it makes sense – particularly when it comes to rumors.

“Your job in this when it comes to information, is policing correct information,” Pal said. “There's so much rumor and innuendo and there are so many people trying to make this something that it isn't.”

5. Put your leaders out in front

Everything an agency posts has two audiences: internal and external. Both the public and the rank-and-file within your agency are looking for guidance and reassurance during this crisis, which means leaders need to be seen – including on social media. 

“If the bosses aren't doing quick messages out to the troops, they're missing a huge opportunity because right now the troops need to know that their bosses care about their health,” Pal said. “Bosses need to be doing internal and external messaging. That shows leadership. That shows getting involved. That shows being seen.”


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Use these articles to develop an effective social media strategy for connecting with your community:

How to stay connected as a school resource officer in a COVID-19 world

Now cops and residents can connect by video

Communicating through COVID-19: 6 tips for public safety social media outreach

3 steps to effective community communications during a national emergency

Educating the public about police response during the COVID-19 pandemic

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