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Face the Public on Facebook

Written by Cara Donlon-Cotton

After the column in the March 2010 issue of LAW and ORDER on new social media, hopefully you have been convinced to start using some new methods to communicate with the public. If you are still hesitant, think about this: Studies have proven that more people are getting their news and information through some sort of online source. In January 2009, traditional news media outlets (TV, radio and newspaper) grimly announced that, once again:

“The Internet overtook print newspapers as a news source this year, according to a report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which asked more than a thousand people where they got ‘most of’ their national and international news” (New York Times, Jan. 4, 2009).

While newspaper readership actually increased one percentage point in 2008, it was still overshadowed by the percentage of people who only use the Internet as their news source. Furthermore, according to a November through December 2009 national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of American adults use the Internet.

In other words, if your department does not have a significant online presence for communicating with the public, the media, the community—you’re sorely lagging behind the times. People want their information in some kind of online format; if you’re not utilizing this venue, you’re missing the majority of your audience.

In the previous article of this series, Twitter and its benefits were outlined as one of today’s more popular means of communicating. There is a variety of social media and social networking sites you can use to increase your department’s presence and standing within the community. Here is a brief overview of the two ways you can bring your agency into the 21st Century.

Facebook

Look at some recent Facebook statistics: There are more than 350 million active users of Facebook. Half of those users log on every day. More than 35 million users update their status every day. There are more than 55 million status updates posted every day.

For the past few years, law enforcement agencies have been utilizing Facebook as an investigative tool. Detectives in California made cases against gangs by following the information trails left on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Recruiters and background investigators check out the social networking profiles of their prospective hires. We know it’s a useful tool for getting information. So why not use it to give information?

By creating a Facebook page for your agency, you create a platform where you can interact with the public in a forum they prefer. Why go the extra mile? If you want public support, you will actually have to take the time to communicate on their level. How many people actually show up to city council or county commission meetings to lobby on your behalf? How many would if they were rallied through an easy online forum?

The possibilities are endless. You can use your Facebook page to champion neighborhood watch groups, highlight department achievements, make announcements, put the “feel good” stories out there, and recruit potential candidates.

It is likely that potential police recruits are on Facebook and communicate via Facebook and texting more than through phone calls. Let’s say a promising Criminal Justice major is sitting in the library of the local community college researching law enforcement agencies. He finds your department’s Facebook page and posts a message: “I would like more information about becoming a police officer with your agency. Can someone get back to me?”

You could wait until he spots your recruiter at the next job fair, or you could send him a message shortly after receiving his. The agency that only gives him a main radio room number is not going to be as attractive to the promising applicant as a technologically advanced and more user-friendly department.

Online Groups, ListServes, E-mails

Community groups and neighborhood watch organizations have discovered the ease of ListServes and mass e-mail programs. They communicate with each other and exchange information by inviting select or all members of their group to subscribe. While the initial setup is a little labor intensive, the rewards can be worth it. Consider setting up a Google or Yahoo group for your neighborhood watch groups or business groups so they can receive crime reports.

Chances are they have already subscribed to a crime mapping program that may or may not be furnished with reliable information. Instead of forcing them to go to a third party informational collective, why not just give them the information yourself? You can e-mail them the accurate data once a day or once a week, depending on the needs of your agency. You can also use it to broadcast BOLOs (Be On the Look Out) and to receive reports of suspicious activity in their areas. The more you give them, the more they’ll give back, and that’s exactly what community-oriented policing wants to achieve.

No matter what avenue of 21st Century communication you choose, just be sure to use one. Don’t just activate a Twitter account and let it lie dormant for six months. Don’t just promise to update that Yahoo group—make it benefit your agency. And don’t be afraid to confess that you are new to the realm; the seasoned online veterans (both sworn and civilian) will jump in and help you. If you are still not convinced, do an Internet search for “police departments twitter” and see how you are being left behind.

Cara Donlon-Cotton is a reformed newspaper reporter and a former course developer and instructor with the Georgia Public Safety Training Center. She currently teaches Media Relations and Public Relations to local law enforcement agencies. She can be reached at cdonloncotton@yahoo.com or through the Public Safety Training and Education Network at http://psten.com.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2010

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