Posted on Aug. 13, 2020 by Emily Hatch

It’s no surprise: we live in an age of technology. This equates to a 24/7 news cycle, constant social media connectivity and the ever-present feeling of pressure to be on top of it all.

With this buzz sweeping the nation, at the end of 2019, it was reported that 79% of U.S. Americans have a social media profile. While interesting, what does this have to do with law enforcement?

As a response to the increase in social media use and its importance in society, most departments have created social media profiles across the various platforms. However, social media is used for far more than sharing memes; instead, departments are utilizing this tool to improve community relations, gather intelligence and shape emerging narratives, among other reasons.

Improving Community Relations

One of the biggest strengths of social media is how it allows the community to communicate with the agency in a more personal, easy manner. Instead of attending meetings, sending emails or calling the department, users can send a message directly to the department’s profile. Depending on the person(s) managing the account—most often the Public Information Officer (PIO)— users can receive a quick, personalized answer.

Law enforcement departments can also start the conversation by asking questions or posting images or stories of their personnel. With constant use and conversation, this creates a sense of community.

However, to best communicate with your audience, a department needs to know where they are at. According to Pew Research Center, U.S. adults frequent the following channels:

YouTube – 73%
Facebook – 69%
Instagram- 37%
Pinterest – 28%
Twitter – 22%

While YouTube is the highest social channel, Facebook comes in a close second and remains the best for sharing messages and images, connecting with others and overall creating a sense of community.

As your department considers adopting social media, another thing to keep in mind are users’ age ranges. While Snapchat and Instagram appear farther down on the list, they are primarily used by individuals in the 18-24 age bracket. And while Facebook is used by all age groups, its primary users are 25-34, and it has the highest audience of individuals aged 50+.

These are statistics to keep in mind as your department considers how to interact with users. Knowing Facebook users tend to be in older age brackets, messaging and tone should be more professional, while still personal. However, with a younger audience on Instagram and Snapchat, communication can be more relaxed, light-hearted or contain pop culture references—should your department choose to go that route.

Gathering Intelligence

Departments can also gather intelligence in one of two areas: understanding how the community perceives your department and how the community acts and thinks online.

With most users logging on and contributing to their social accounts every day, there is a vast amount of data generated. The department PIO or other account manager can monitor this data daily, every other day or weekly to understand what information the public is looking for, along with their opinions and sentiment about certain topics or your department. Remember, your department is learning from the community just as much as the community is learning from you.

Going one step further, this data can be used to identify attitudes that may be affecting recruiting, identifying times when online support is highest or the common problems and complaints that occur. All of this information is found on each platform. Different social platforms have different methods of gathering and displaying metrics, though the big ones—YouTube, Facebook and Instagram—offer the easiest insights, engagement metrics and so forth.

Shaping Emerging Stories

As a public authority figure, the community is looking to you for information and direction. As such, it becomes your job to control the information that is being released on a hot topic or developing story. While this is also accomplished via public releases or live-streaming conferences, a simple social update post or link out to more information puts your agency front and center.

In fact, 91% of law enforcement agencies used social media to notify the public of safety concerns, while 89% of agencies used it for community outreach and citizen engagement, with 86% using it for public relations and reputation management. ¹ Though agencies often use social media for a multitude of reasons, informing the public remains the highest reason.

Social media can be a powerful tool for your department. In the last few years alone, social media use among police departments has significantly increased – with a focus on improving community relations – gathering intelligence and shaping emerging stories. Keep your department informed, modern and in control by adapting to the latest social trends.

  1. 2016 Law Enforcement Use of Social Media Survey, A Joint Publication by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Urban Institute, 2016.

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