Date: Friday, December 03, 2010
Should different precincts or specialty units within the same agency have separate Facebook pages???
Here in Boise, we don't have the separate precincts, but we do have specialized units like crime prevention, school resource officers, traffic, etc. So I have carefully considered this question and have discussed and researched the potential value of separate, more specialized social network pages that represent the same agency.
Understand that in the purest sense of social networking, each precinct would indeed have its own focus. A real purist might argue each officer should have his or her own outreach.
However, taking the specialized focus and unique needs and interests of law enforcement into account, I disagree with the purists. Decentralization of public communication - through social networking or not - is not a wise approach. A decentralized command structure is workable and may be preferable for many police services, but dissemination of public information is not one of them.
Public confidence and trust is critical to the effective, safe operation of a police agency. Focused, strategic release of public information for an agency is essential. Any communication, including social networking postings representing the department must be appropriate and within the department's professional and ethical standards. Choices of words, use of humor, and images must be a professional representation of the department and its public safety mission. Those managing department communications must have a solid understanding of community norms, sensitivities, expectations, and department policies regarding release of information.
To that end, consistency of message is vital. Internet posts may be well intentioned, but as we've seen in some cases, it only take one post that's poorly worded or one misguided attempt at humor to call into question the agencies professionalism and integrity. Too many authors or official "voices" may compromise not only consistency, but the professionalism and reputation of the agency. Separate pages for each precinct may also water down or dilute the departments ability to focus its messaging, again creating an opportunity for contradiction and confusion.
Multiple sources for one agency would also confuse citizens on where to go for urgent information on a major incident like a missing child or any public safety emergency. All of us turn to sources we're familiar with in an emergency. A critical public information function of a police agency is to get urgent information to citizens in a crisis. It would be impractical, confusing, or contradictory to try and manage multiple sites and sources in an emergency.
So... here's what I suggest...
Keep the main department social media sites to a single per site - one Facebook account, one Twitter account (unless there's an automated account that goes out from dispatch on traffic crashes), etc.
Have suggested content from ALL precincts and specialty units sent to the PIO office for consideration and posting to the main department sites. For example, car burglaries may be an increased concern in one area, but the message on how to prevent car burglaries is important for everyone! Content suggestions from each precinct or unit could also be tied into ongoing department campaigns, like holiday DUI education and enforcement, focused seat belt patrols, traffic safety in school zones, etc.
Decentralized policing makes sense in many communities and can be very successful in building relationships and programs necessary to public safety. But communicating the public safety message should be focused, thoughtful, and consistent.