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Back to Archives | Back to June 2012 Contents 

Telling a Story through Social Media

By Bryan T. Norwood, Chief of Police, Richmond, Virginia, Police Department; and Dionne Waugh, Marketing and Public Relations Specialist, Richmond, Virginia, Police Department

Richmond, Virginia, Chief Bryan T. Norwood takes his iPad with him everywhere and uses it for work and to access to the department’s social networking sites.
Photographs by Kathy Thomson, Forensics Photo Lab Technician, Richmond, Virginia, Police Deparment

magine if everyone opened up their morning newspaper every day and first read a short, positive story about an officer making a successful arrest. Then they turn the page and see photos and charges from a successful citywide prostitution operation. Next to that article is a prominently placed surveillance image from a recent robbery requesting information to help find and identify the offender. Below those stories is a single, stand-alone photo of mounted unit officers laughing and talking with citizens downtown.

Further, imagine that throughout the paper, there are comments from people congratulating officers for their good work, thanking the department for sharing such positive information with them, and asking for even more information.

This is exactly what social media sites are: Online newspapers and television stations that allow for the dissemination of information in the manner you want your community to receive it.

The primary difference is that people are reading their morning newspaper on their smartphones or computers, and an agency can respond to inquiries in real time. An agency’s responses shape the conversation in ways that benefit the community and reflect well on the police department.

Social media gives law enforcement agencies the ability and the power to tell their own stories.

Agencies do not have to hope or ask a reporter to publish a positive news story. Rather, agencies can write, record, or photograph an incident and post this content online for immediate viewing of and discussion among the community and the department.

This is how the Richmond, Virginia, Police Department uses social media. It tells its own story.

In the Beginning

About three years ago, the Richmond Police Department recognized that the local media market had shifted. Previously, reporters had the time to build relationships in the community and tell fair and balanced stories.

This unfortunately is not always the case today. There are fewer reporters with less air time and news space. This means they barely have enough time to cover the homicides and the robberies, let alone anything else.

A popular news cliché is, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Does this mean stories about positive police responses where no one dies are not as important? Absolutely not. But, unfortunately, there is often no reporter to tell the story.

This is where social media comes in. An agency representative can become the reporter and tell the story, straight to the community. An officer or a representative should start with taking on this responsibility in a way that a given agency can handle. This is one of the great things about social media: it can be made to work in a variety of different ways. If officers are unsure of how an agency will use social media, what to expect, or what works best, they should start small and start slow. There is no hurry. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. And if an agency rushes, it is apt to make mistakes.

Although Richmond’s traditional media market may be declining, its online community is thriving. From local, neighborhood-specific blogs to a social media club that meets monthly to discuss—and tweet simultaneously—social media issues, the Richmond community communicates online in record numbers. Its citizens love to share photos through a photo sharing program called Instagram, tweet about the things they see, and check in on Foursquare to let people know where they are.

Two city residents recently took the initiative to involve the city in a national competition to win a Richmond-specific Foursquare badge, which showcases many great places in the area.1 Richmond won because so many people and organizations, including the city of Richmond, got on board and promoted the contest. Another example of Richmond’s thriving online community is on Tumblr, a nationally growing microblogging service that recently opened a branch in Richmond because of the large number of local users.2

Social media is important to understand because police departments need to know their community to anticipate how their efforts will be received. The Richmond Police Department knew that its community was actively using social media and therefore would be receptive to the police department communicating and sharing information through sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Could an agency argue that it has a website and therefore does not need a Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube page? Perhaps in the past, but research indicates that online behavior has changed. Fewer people are visiting websites—especially young people—and citizens cannot engage in two-way communication on a traditional website. Yes, they can submit an inquiry or email, but they likely cannot post a question and receive a response in a fairly quick timeframe, nor can they see other questions and the agency’s responses.

With 845 million monthly active users at the end of last year, Facebook is the online communication method of choice for many Americans. 3 It’s also where many people will search first for information about a business. Government agencies are no exception. Here is the difference: On a website, visitors may see photos and videos and information that an agency posts. But on a Facebook page, they can read comments from citizens and learn about an agency in a way that is easier for them to navigate. Every agency website looks and navigates in a variety of different ways. On a Facebook page, the layout is the same, but the information is different. With the familiar layout for navigation, people are more likely to stay on a Facebook page and read the same information that might be available on a website.

Create a Social Media Policy

When it comes to social media, there is no better advice than to have a social media policy. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has several examples available on IACP Net. By studying these policies, an agency can quickly develop one that works best for its own purposes.

Social media policies allow agencies to state how they envision communication methods on social media sites. They can delineate the format for how content will be posted, who will post it, and when it will be posted. They also can lay the groundwork for how an agency’s social media use will grow and evolve as the department’s technology evolves and the department’s strategy changes.

For example, the Richmond Police Department’s social media policy dictates that only the four employees in the Public Affairs Unit will create and maintain the department’s official social media sites. Because these employees are the department’s communicators, handling members of the traditional media as well as citizen phone and email inquiries daily, they know best how to represent and speak for the department online. It is their job to promote the positive aspects of the Richmond Police Department, communicate in ways that are professional and appropriate, and handle the negative issues when they arise as well.

The department’s social media policy clearly articulates expectations so that everyone understands how issues will be handled. This is true for the department’s other policies, too, from uniform requirements to evidence processing. One of the important reasons to designate the individual or individuals who will run an agency’s social media sites. This will help to prevent the creation of agency sites unaffiliated with the agency. Profiles—even when complimentary—that are not affiliated with an agency could reflect badly on the agency, since the agency has no authority over what is posted.

Another crucial element of a social media policy is the protection it gives an agency when people criticize how something is handled. The primary concern that the Richmond Police Department had when first considering whether to start using social media sites was how it would handle negative comments. It is probably safe to say that this same issue is a top concern among many law enforcement agencies across the country. Unfortunately, like most departments or businesses in general, people tend to be most vocal when they have a complaint. Less often do they find the time to share a compliment.

This is why it is imperative that agencies have a plan—ahead of time—as to how to respond when people post negative content online. The Richmond Police Department’s social media policy explains this plan. Many aspects of social media use are defined in the policy, including what the department considers to be inappropriate comments on its sites. These comments could include foul language, attacks against an individual or group of people, and so forth. There is also an abbreviated mention of this aspect of the policy on the department’s social media pages for public viewing.

Per the social media policy, the Richmond Police Department’s Public Affairs Unit monitors all comments on all social media sites on which the agency has a presence: Facebook, Twitter, and You-Tube. Employees use applications on their desktop computers and their cellphones to read comments and ongoing conversations.

When an employee finds an inappropriate comment that violates the department’s social media policy, the employee takes a digital picture or a screen capture of the comment and saves it by name and date in the department’s Deleted Comments folder. Depending on the platform on which the comment originally appeared, the employee will write a comment as the Richmond Police Department to notify the poster that the comment has been deleted for violating the department’s social media policy. In some cases, sending a direct message on Facebook or Twitter is most appropriate. The poster then understands why their comment was deleted and sometimes has the option of reposting the comment without the offensive language. This is an important part of the conversation because it shows the poster that the agency is listening to what they have to say, is interacting with them, and will not permit communication in ways that are unprofessional.

A social media policy gives an agency the protection it needs when it must delete a comment. Sometimes, no matter what is communicated from the agency, an inappropriate poster will not understand and will become upset that a comment was deleted. This is when the agency can point to its social media policy as the reason and the guide behind the decision to delete. This shows that the agency is following protocol and is treating everyone the same.

Develop a Strategy

Agencies must develop strategies for how they plan to use their social media sites if they are to tell their stories in the best ways possible. The Richmond Police Department started off small with an item that has since grown to be one of the most popular items on its Facebook page. It is called Today’s Good News.

Today’s Good News was something that the Public Affairs Unit was already creating as part of its daily operations. It was a few-sentences-long blurb about a good arrest, a compliment from a citizen, or a general safety tip.

The department began posting a Today’s Good News item every weekday morning on its Facebook page. Initially, it received a few “likes”; today, it often receives 20, 30, or more “likes” and anywhere from a handful to one dozen comments congratulating the officer or officers and the department on the good action. The strategy has worked. Today’s Good News is one of the most popular items on the department’s sites, and it is automatically shared to the department’s Twitter audience when posted to the Facebook page. The reason for the post’s success is simple: It is positive, it is short, it is about the Richmond Police Department, and it is one of the first things people see in the morning.

Next, the Richmond Police Department began posting its press releases to its Facebook page. This gave the department a direct communication channel with the community and provided a way to distribute information without waiting for the 6:00 p.m. news or the next day’s newspaper. By posting the press releases online, investigators no longer had to wonder how a reporter might interpret and communicate a story and if the important facts will be released. A press release posted on the department’s Facebook page allows citizens to see exactly what the agency said and, importantly, what it didn’t say.

An important aspect of both Today’s Good News and the press releases is that they were two things the department was already doing, so it was not significantly more work for an employee to simply post this information online. The benefits have been huge for connecting and communicating with a community that wants to know more about its police department.

Since it began posting this information, the Richmond Police Department has become more proactive online through the different ways it can inform and communicate with its community. It has started to build on this foundation. One example is through profiles of officers.

The department has profiled several of its officers using words, photos, and video. There is perhaps no better way to tell a story than by doing so through a particular person. The department is fortunate to have a talented former TV news reporter in its Public Affairs Unit who creates videos every month about the selected officer of the month and the selected sergeant of the month. The videos are less than two minutes long, showcase an average shift for an officer, and include comments from the officer and the supervisor about why and how the officer enjoys being a Richmond police officer. The video capability on a smartphone or a flip camera also can be used to capture and share short videos with the community. One of the most popular videos the Richmond Police Department posted early on was a minute-long video captured by BlackBerry of a group of bicycle officers rescuing a baby hedgehog that had become stuck in a fence. It may sound silly at first, but this video showcased the human side of police officers, which is too often forgotten by the public.

Many times, people see only the uniform, the badge, and the gun, and they forget that police officers are people with families and lives of their own. Through social media, agencies can make that connection with people while they tell the story of their particular department. For example, the Richmond Police Department has several officers who love to ride motorcycles, including its own police chief. The Public Affairs Unit sought out officers from different units who rode motorcycles; took a picture of these officers with their bikes; and posted the photos on Facebook with captions that included the officers’ names, types of motorcycles, and why they enjoy riding motorcycles. This informed the community about a variety of officers who work for the police department, humanized the officers, and showcased the motorcycles themselves. Although it is not newsworthy to the media, this information is interesting to the community.

It Is All about Communication

Police agencies must remember that it really is all about communication. Social media is just a different method. An agency is simply telling a story about its officers and its arrests and is allowing community members to actively listen and respond. Social media is one of the best ways a police agency can communicate with a community because it allows an agency to show photos, videos, clever words, and a sense of humor. In other words, social media makes storytelling into more of a conversation between friends.

Still not sure what to do? Look at what other agencies, both near and far, are doing. This is a great way to start and generate ideas. These agencies are also the best ones to ask questions because they have already navigated the challenges of social media and likely had the same questions at one point.

One of the ideas the Richmond Police Department came up with this past year was to tweet and Facebook the department’s year-end crime statistics and facts, rather than use traditional media to communicate this information. The chief believed it was important for the community to know exactly how and why crime had decreased and increased in the ways that it had within the frame of a historical context. The department took the approach that it was important to take the information to its community first, rather than to the media. Again, why wait and wonder how the media might spin the story when an agency can take the information, unbiased, directly to its community?

Community partnerships also have helped the Richmond Police Department to tell its story to the community. While the crime-fighting partnerships may not be newsworthy to a reporter, this is important information for the community to know. The best way to share this information is directly from the police department and, ideally, in a visual format. For example, Richmond police have worked hard to create a faith leaders partnership comprising members of many religious backgrounds who accompany officers to different parts of the city and communicate and interact with residents about ways ordinary citizens can help to reduce crime. This action is part of the department’s overall focus on community policing, but, by posting photos on social networks of the groups throughout the city, the Richmond Police Department is telling its story in the best way possible. This shows the community one of the many things its officers are doing in city neighborhoods through a method—social media—that they see and use on a daily basis.

Individual agencies must determine how social media can work best for them and what is necessary to make a positive social media presence a reality. Remember: There is no one out there better equipped to tell an agency’s story than the agency itself. ■


1“Foursquare Badge for Richmond Unveiled,”, March 2, 2012, (accessed April 16, 2012).
2Jolie O’Dell, “Tumblr Opens New Office in Richmond, Virginia,” Mashable Business, January 8, 2011, (accessed April 16, 2012).
3“Fact Sheet,” Facebook Newsroom, 2012, (accessed April 16, 2012).

Please cite as:

Bryan T. Norwood and Dionne Waugh, "Telling a Story through Social Media," The Police Chief 79 (June 2012):

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 6, June 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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