How a small police department can thrive on social media
Even with a part-time PIO, there are steps you can take to get your messages seen online
By Darren Wright
Many smaller departments lack the resources to have a full-time public information officer (PIO) or social media manager. This job often is relegated to someone as a peripheral duty (we all know about the “other duties as assigned”). This does not reduce the need for a social media presence. It can be vital for you to communicate with your audience, because rumors in small towns spread quickly, and those rumors often contain misinformation.
Does your audience know where to find you when there is an emergency? Are you even on social media? Here is just one example of the benefits of social media use when you successfully appear in the feeds of your community: Our department had two different dogs our officers found running loose. We posted on social channels, and within 30 minutes of the posts, we had the owners of each of the dogs found and the pups safely returned home. One of the reasons for this success is that the community had been engaged by previous posts on social media and in turn saw our posts in their feeds.
There were additional benefits to the posts in these situations. Our community here, like many places, loves dogs. Seeing their police department taking the extra time and effort to reunite puppies with their lost humans resonated with citizens in a very positive way, and they relayed that positive feedback to us through those same channels. They likely worked the department into positive conversations with their friends and family through their social media, extending the reach of our positive messaging and image.
Small departments have information that needs to get out just as much as big-city departments. Whether it is a lost child, a found dog, or a road closure, you want to inform people about what is going on. So you create a post, maybe add a picture for attention, but do you know who is getting the information or how your messaging fares in the algorithms of different social media platforms? Don’t leave it to chance – create content that triggers the algorithms in your favor.
Master algorithms: A case study
In 2022 our agency decided to participate in our own take on the popular “Elf on the Shelf.” We introduced OVee (the town we serve is Oro Valley, which is often abbreviated as “OV”) a few years ago. We brought him back as “Officer OVee.” He joined the department and became an officer. The concept of Officer OVee had several intentions, including recruiting, safety messaging, community engagement and a little bit of humor.
Let’s start with community engagement. Officer OVee was a hit from day one when he debuted on December 1. We introduced him with a small backstory and showed him with his uniform, making a joke about how the patch wouldn’t fit. This was some subtle branding of the agency to start the journey. He then went on to some training in our communications center – another chance to put out a recruiting message, as we are hiring dispatchers.
As the month went on, he toggled between safety messages, like reminders about traffic safety and not leaving your garage remote in an unlocked vehicle due to a growing risk of theft and home burglary. We also included some light content: Officer OVee tried to help in several different sections of the department but often did more to create additional work than to help. This was an opportunity to highlight various sections of the department.
By the time Christmas arrived and the time came for Officer OVee to head back north, the community was engaged. Members told us they’d miss him and looked forward to him coming back next year. This all adds up to engagement. People actively looking for our OVee posts every day activated the algorithms to help our posts in the future appear in those feeds – meaning our messages of the road closure, lost child, or found dog will be seen by those who need to see it.
Posting information for your audience to see and be informed only works if they see it. Our social media time investment for December was a little more than usual, but still not very much. The most time-consuming thing about the Officer OVee posts was thinking up the ideas for his antics.
Small departments with part-time PIOs can still take part in this type of messaging. Using scheduling tools such as Meta Business Suite or Hootsuite allows you to create all your posts at once and schedule them out throughout the month. If these tools are used properly, there is no need for someone to be available daily to release the posts. This means even a person who serves as PIO as an additional duty can create and engage their community with a minimal time commitment.
The right post on the right platform
Some agencies only have a Facebook page, others are on every platform out there. No one strategy is right for every agency. The agency I retired from, the Washington State Patrol (WSP), has one Facebook page and several Twitter and Instagram pages. The Facebook page is for posts that relay the accomplishments of the agency and employees like promotions, retirements and safety messaging. When there is something “fans” will appreciate, it tends to go on Facebook.
Each of the district public information officers and a few of the individual divisions have their own Twitter and Instagram pages. These are for the news, incidents and more localized accomplishments within those sections of the agency. This is all possible due to staffing dedicated to that task. If your agency is smaller and doesn’t have a dedicated person for messaging, make your posts count, and post often enough to keep your presence active.
The agency I currently work for as a civilian PIO has three major platforms, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as Nextdoor and Ring Neighbors for localized messaging. Limiting which platforms your agency uses makes managing the social media program feasible for smaller departments. Only take on what fits your audience demographics and you know you will keep up with. We do not use TikTok, Snapchat, or some of the other trendy platforms for several reasons, including time commitment and community demographics.
Our matching of content and platform is very deliberate. News and in-progress events like traffic collisions or road blockages go on Twitter. Things the community would like to know about go on Facebook and on Instagram when there are appropriate visuals.
TRAFFIC COLLISION- There is a traffic collision on Oracle at Suffolk. Southbound lanes blocked. Please avoid the area. pic.twitter.com/Xid35racXn— Oro Valley Police (@OroValleyPD) March 10, 2023
The community we serve currently is predominantly older and retired. With that demographic, those newer, trendy platforms are not the right tool for the job. If you are speaking to a younger audience, then these platforms may be a good choice for your message. As with all communications strategies, you must know your audience.
Becoming the source
Some would ask why a department would do silly things like the Elf on the Shelf. The elf was just our tool to accomplish a job. The ultimate goal is to become the source of information. You want your community and audience to look to you for accurate, timely and verified information during times of crisis. If you haven’t engaged your audience prior to the need, it will be too late, and they will get information from another source. That source may not be accurate and can increase your workload as you try to correct misinformation.
By engaging your audience with something that will keep them interacting with your page, you are creating a path to appear in their feeds more regularly and will have a better chance of being seen when needed.
Social media is a double-edged sword. It is where we can engage our fans but also feed the trolls that look for any opportunity to take a poke at you. If you have properly engaged your audience, many times your fans will come to your aid when the trolls strike. The key thing is to not let the trolls discourage you from having a social media presence, because according to Statista, 82% of the population of the United States has social networking profile.”1
If 82% of your audience is on social media, you should be too, even if you have a small department with limited resources. It does take some time dedicated to proper messaging, but I assure you, it is time well spent, and the investment will pay off.
Follow Oro Valley Police on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
NEXT: Is it OK for your police department to be silly on social media?
1. Dixon SJ. (July 27, 2022.) Percentage of U.S. population who currently use any social media from 2008 to 2021. Statista.
About the author
Darren Wright is the public information officer for the Oro Valley Police Department in Arizona. He retired from the Washington State Patrol as a sergeant after serving 31 years. His final assignment was the headquarters public information officer (PIO), where he handled major media inquiries and statewide impact incidents and oversaw the district PIO program. He has a bachelor’s degree in communication and a master’s degree in communications with a public relations concentration from Southern New Hampshire University. He is an honorably discharged veteran from the United States Marine Corps.