Is it OK for your police department to be silly on social media?

No matter how popular or viral your video or photo gets, if it doesn’t brand your department or send the message you intend to relay, it is a failure


By Darren Wright

We’ve all seen the amusing videos on TikTok and other social media used by modern departments to promote themselves and entice new members. They’ve tried everything from dance and lip sync challenges to the used car sales recruiting video recently produced in Fort Worth, Texas.

Many of them are very funny, most of them are entertaining. But is being silly, funny, or joining the new viral video craze right for your department? There is no one right answer – departments are as different as the communities they serve.

Just because the content you release is memorable doesn't mean it makes for effective communication.
Just because the content you release is memorable doesn't mean it makes for effective communication. (Getty Images)

Identify your audience

To determine if such an approach is right for your department, you must first evaluate the core elements of communication: your message, your audience and your delivery method.

Identifying your audience is especially important: If you’re the chief of police at a university or in a school setting with a predominantly younger demographic, then using messaging that resonates with them is a good choice. They respond well to humor, fads and the latest viral crazes. Conversely, if you have an audience that’s more reserved and might see their local police taking part in these fads as unprofessional, it’s an easy decision not to partake.

If your entire community consisted of one specific demographic, the choice would be easy. But as in almost everything in our profession, it is never that easy.

Are you talking to me?

To whom are you speaking on your social channels? How do you determine the composition of your audience? We should all know the demographics of our communities, but their actual makeup may not necessarily match the audience on social media.

Unlike that statistics class you took in college, analytics are your friend. Analyze your social media followers and the feedback you receive for different types of posts. This will identify who you are speaking to when you post. If there is a segment of the community that may not appreciate using humor but isn’t on social media to see it, they become less influential in the decision.

Just because the content you release is memorable doesn't mean it makes for effective communication. Think for a moment about insurance commercials. When you see the popular character Flo, what company does she represent? Most people I ask very quickly come up with Progressive Insurance. The branding Progressive uses makes it clear throughout the commercials who they are and connect Flo with their brand.

Now recall another fan favorite, Mayhem. He’s familiar and funny, and people love the commercials with the path of destruction he leaves. I think everyone would agree he is very recognizable and popular. Now, who does he represent? Did the company come to mind as quickly as Flo? Did you get it at all?

I’ve been conducting an informal survey with this exact question. Nearly everyone connects Flo with Progressive, but very few can tell me who Mayhem works for. What’s even more damaging to the company than not knowing is when someone guesses wrong. That competitor now gets credit for the first company’s great idea and in turn the resulting business.

This example shows that popularity does not equal success. No matter how popular or viral your video or photo gets, if it doesn’t brand your department or send the message you intend to relay, it is a failure. Now, tell the truth: You searched which company Mayhem represents, didn’t you?

Online tone is a moving target

The need and desire to get your message out should be a driving factor in all your communications planning. With that in mind, does having a million followers from around the world help your department? My dream goal would be to have every member of my community, and anyone affected by things involving my community, follow the social channels we have. But having followers who have no interest or stake in our message is not vital to successful communications.

I spent more than 30 years with an agency that holds professionalism very high on its list of priorities. Early in my career, the thought of being “human” on social media appeared to be frowned upon. I recall when I first became a PIO, we’d just started using Twitter. Our department’s leaders said they wanted us to be “human,” but that went against everything that had been beaten into my head for almost 20 years.

To test this I took a risk. It was 2012, and the topic was the Mayan calendar prediction that the end of the world was imminent. I drafted a tweet and sent it out, hoping I would get to keep my position after it was seen. The tweet said, “Please drive safe, just in case the Mayans were wrong. #EndOfTheWorld”.

It wasn’t five minutes after I sent the tweet that my phone rang. It was headquarters calling. I thought about letting it go to voice mail but decided to face the music. The communication director for the agency called and said he loved the tweet and to keep it up. I thought, “Game on!”

There is a constant struggle to find that perfect balance of humanity, humor and professionalism. It’s a moving target, especially when you have competing audiences. There is a time and place for being silly, humorous, or just plain ridiculous. One consideration is your current climate and environment. Has there been a recent event that can influence how the message is received? Does your community (audience) want you to use humor to get the message across, or are you trying to entertain strangers who don’t even know where your town is?

When it’s time to be serious again

Nothing says you have to stick with just one style of communication. But if you’re chasing likes, retweets and follows, what’s next? How far do you go to get that next viral fix?

Our profession is very fluid and often requires being very serious and sometimes stoic. One consideration when deciding to partake in that next video fad or dance challenge is how will you message a very serious situation the day after you release a video of your personnel being silly. Don’t allow your credibility to be diminished.  

So, what’s the verdict?

The bottom line is, follow the three prongs of good communication: Determine your message, know your audience and choose the right delivery method. And at the end of the day, if you’re not sure, the old adage still applies: Better safe than sorry – because once it’s out on TwitFacestagram, it’s never coming back.

NEXT: Establishing a brand for your agency is easier than it sounds


About the author

Darren Wright is the public information officer for the police department in Oro Valley, Arizona. He retired from the Washington State Patrol as a sergeant after serving 31 years. His final assignment was as headquarters public information officer, 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 of the United States Marine Corps.

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