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Tweet for the Chief

Written by Cara Donlon-Cotton

One of the battles that law enforcement instructors face each time they walk into the classroom is the knowledge that “cops don’t like change.” Adults may be apprehensive about learning something new. However, cops take this to a whole new level. They know what they like and they know what works. You had better provide a darn good reason as to why they should be using something different.

Ever try to get an old salt to give up his revolver? Well, try and tell a chief, sheriff or public information officer they need to start “Tweeting” or “Facebooking” or doing something other than faxing a press release. Yet, that is what it takes today. Welcome to the wonderful world of social media.

The communication world has technologically exploded in the last 10 years. From the creation of MySpace and Facebook to the Twitter phenomenon, there are a multitude of public information dissemination tools that are out there. But not only are they “out there” they have changed the way normal, everyday people communicate.

Consider these Facebook stats provided by the company. There are more than 350 million active users. 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.

Twitter is taking the world by storm and has, at times, been the only way people have communicated during times of crisis, i.e. during the Haiti earthquake. According to a fall 2009 research report released by the Pew Research Center:

Some 19% of Internet users now say they use Twitter or another service to share updates about themselves, or to see updates about others. This represents a significant increase over previous surveys in December 2008 and April 2009, when 11% of Internet users said they use a status-update service.

Three groups of internet users are mainly responsible for driving the growth of this activity: social network Web site users, those who connect to the Internet via mobile devices, and younger internet users—those under age 44.

In addition, the more devices someone owns, the more likely they are to use Twitter or another service to update their status. Fully 39% of Internet users with four or more Internet-connected devices (such as a laptop, cell phone, game console, or Kindle) use Twitter, compared to 28% of Internet users with three devices, 19% of Internet users with two devices, and 10% of Internet users with one device.

You can read the rest of this report at: http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/2009/17-twitter-and-status-updating-fall-2009.aspx

We are living in an increasingly media savvy era, in which 74 percent of American adults use the Internet according to a November through December 2009 national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. The research also shows that 60 percent of American adults use broadband connections at home and 55 percent connect to the Internet wirelessly, either through a WiFi or WiMax connection via their laptops or through their handheld device like a smart phone.

The days of radio, TV and newspapers as the sole outlets of information are quickly being replaced by a new online media age. The playing field has changed and law enforcement needs to adapt. And it needs to adapt quickly. A variety of social media and social networking sites exist with which you can increase your department’s presence and standing within the community. Here is a brief overview of the first of the three main ways you can bring your agency into the 21st century.

Using Twitter

No one is ever going to convince you that the Twitter terminology is professional sounding. You are just going to have to get over the fact that the terms involved with Twitter like tweet, twitter, tweetdeck, tweeting, fail whale, etc., are here to stay. Many law enforcement agencies are using Twitter and its 140-character count “tweets” to send out information to the public. As ridiculous as some of these terms sound, “man up” and start tweeting.

The steps on Twitter.com will explain how to not only establish an account but how to become a “verified” user so the people know the information is coming from your agency and not some lonely kid in a basement with a lot of free time.

Agencies are tweeting about public safety issues. Examples of tweets include: “Wreck w injuries, 1st & Main. Avoid area,” or “BOLO: B/M, 6ft, 250lbs, scar on face, re: bank robbery. Armed. Dangerous. Call 911 if spotted. Last seen running west on Mulberry,” or “Street closed. Flooding. Avoid Pine and Maple. Use detour of Birch and Cherry.”

The tweets cannot exceed 140 characters and spaces count as a character. The beauty of Twitter is that it automatically tells people who read your tweets at what time the information was sent out and who sent it, so you don’t need to include that information in your message.

The brevity of Twitter is almost best mastered by law enforcement who are more than used to using abbreviated speech, codes and abbreviations over their radios to communicate with each other and with dispatchers. Think of Twitter as a way to shorthand your information.

And Twitter is a way to immediately disseminate information to people directly. Instead of waiting for the radio station to allow a traffic update, people who follow your Twitter feed or Twitter page will get instantly alerted to your updates. Most people use their smart phones to access Twitter and, in case you haven’t noticed, most people are attached to their smart phones.

Aside from the immediate alerts you want the public to have, you can also use Twitter to get a lot of positive information out to the public the mass media might not necessarily disseminate for you. You can give a little snippet and then create a tiny URL to link to a more detailed report on your department’s Web page. (And yes, you need a Web page for your agency.)

Here are two examples: “Metro PD receives CrimeStoppers award. (tiny URL here),” or “K9 Ruff turns four tomorrow. Here is to many more years of successful drug searches. See photos at (tiny URL here).”

Because the media will inevitably “follow” your Twitter feed, they may even be persuaded into covering more of these stories, especially if you make it easy for them by providing all the details and photos in one easy click.

Twitter is probably the easier and most popular way to control your information. The main issue your agency will have is designating a tweeter (and please don’t call them a twit). Most agencies use someone from public information to maintain the account, but that all depends on your organizational chart.

Whoever is maintaining the account should sign up for e-mail alerts when someone sends a direct message (DM) or a public tweet to the account. Most of the time it’s just someone with a routine question like “Who do I call to complain about my ticket?” that can be handled easily and quickly.

Your department tweeter can update as often as they want. If you just want to use it for positive PR, go ahead. If you just want to use it for public notices, go ahead. Just use it! In the next issue we will cover using Facebook to get your message out.

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, Mar 2010

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