Bringing Social Media Strategy into the 21st Century

The third pillar of the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing calls out technology and social media as means to “give police departments an opportunity to fully engage and educate communities in a dialogue about their expectations for transparency, accountability, and privacy.”1 The rapid mass adoption of smartphones around the globe has changed the way people interact with each other, how they get their news, and how the public interacts with law enforcement. Many police departments, in turn, have responded in the last few years by creating an online presence on a variety of popular digital platforms. If used effectively, social media can be a tremendous tool not only to engage with communities, but to serve as a crucial messaging tool during crises. The problem, however, is efficacy.

IACP’s 2015 Social Media Survey re-vealed that 96.4 percent of responding agencies used social media in some capacity. However, in that same survey, 88.7 percent of the respondents indicated that the most common use of social media was for criminal investigations. How departments use their social media platforms matter.2 Simply having a presence on social media does not equate to effective engagement with the community. It is no different than having a uniformed officer standing on the street corner who only gives directions but doesn’t talk or engage with the community. For that officer to make an impact, he or she needs to be personable and professional and build a connection with the community. The same can be said of departments’ social media accounts. To fully engage and educate communities about transparency, accountability, and privacy (as the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing report recommends), social media cannot be seen as a simple tool for investigations or a digital bullhorn to announce community outreach programs. Rather, its importance needs to be driven from the top down, and it needs to have support from the bottom up. Practically speaking, this requires an organizational mind-set where the police chief and command staff are committed to using digital platforms as a means to converse with communities. Likewise, line-level staff needs to understand and support departmental efforts to create stories and content that will resonate with the community and help demystify the difficult job the officers do.