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Police Chiefs - are you ready for the national spotlight?

Because it's coming to you, and you owe it to your communities to be prepared.

I'll spare everyone the opening paragraph about how contentious, frightening and often heartbreaking the discussion around policing has been recently. Throughout it all, offline, are thousands of leaders - police chiefs, sheriffs and commissioners, who aside from having to lead officers and ensure the safety of their communities, are also now faced with a new challenge: communicating. 

To raise the stakes even more, they are no longer only representing just their agency, but the entire Law Enforcement profession. And they're communicating on a new, fast-paced, unforgiving platform that speaks a language they are not fluent in - social media.

For a police executive, it may be tempting to dismiss social media as "public relations," or to brush it off by saying that tweeting isn't the role of the police. However, we need to wake up to the reality we are in, and understand the public demand for accountability & communication isn't going away. Make no mistake - effective communication (or lack of), specifically on social media, has real-life implications on everything from community trust, budget, officer morale and even safety. Don't believe me? As an agency, ask yourself how many times this year have you had to manage a protest or march that had nothing to do with your jurisdiction?

Two officer-involved shootings came to light this weekend and are already making waves throughout the country. While we are waiting for more details and investigation results, it's still unsettling that one agency posted absolutely nothing on social media, while the other uploaded a half-baked press release to Twitter that made them seem even more detached. Social Media activity wouldn't have suppressed the public demand for accountability, nor should it. But even if there is little to no information to share, there should be an attempt to provide some context and show the public that we are making an effort to engage. 

Whether your agency is 10 people or 10,000 there are several steps you can take today to prepare yourself for the spotlight:

  • If you don't have Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts - open them. If you have them and no one uses them, now is the time to find the log-in information, and start brushing off the dust. Don't worry about the other platforms for now. If you can only handle one, pick Twitter. It's where news breaks. 

  • Identify a good communicator within your team and tap him or her, even as an ancillary duty, to be your Digital Communications Officer. At the NYPD we gave 2 officers in every precinct that role. Don't necessarily pick the person who is good with computers, or the one who loves uploading selfies all day. Pick someone responsible who is a good at talking to people, and is also a good writer.

  • Set up training for you and your officers. A lot of people think they know how to use social media and they probably do know the mechanics, but very few people use it effectively. You wouldn't get into a car without learning how to drive it - so don't expect to be able to dive in without educating yourself. The good news is, it's not that difficult, and a professional can teach you in a few hours. 

  • Set up alerts on social media and google to see when people are talking about your agency, or anything you wish to know about. Social media moves fast, and sometimes by the time we respond, the narrative has already taken shape and our message gets lost.

  • FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE DON'T POST IN ALL CAPS. Tone and delivery are everything on social media. To you this means emphasis, but most of the world sees it as aggressive.

You may be terrified of social media. Unfortunately, you have every reason to be. It's a dangerous place where things get taken out of context, rumors fly, and let's face it - people don't love the cops. But not participating in the discussion in the long run is far, far worse. When you opt out, your story will still be told, but by someone else.

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