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Decentralized Social Communications: Scary Stuff!

Do you keep your social media presence “close to the vest” (e.g. only allowing Public Information Officers the ability to post content) or does your strategy include the ability for all agency officials to reach the community? The latter type of presence involves letting go of control to some extent and this, of course, requires a huge leap of faith from leadership, especially in top-down oriented public safety organizations. However, this type of strategy is currently being done quite successfully.

DECENTRALIZED COMMUNICATIONS: IS THIS THE EVOLUTION OF YOUR SOCIAL PRESENCE?
In the book “Social Media in the Public Sector Field Guide” Ines Mergel and Bill Greeves suggest that a decentralized approach to social media content production is evidence of an evolved use of social media in organizations. They state that agencies that have been using social media for a while often “make social media the responsibility of everyone” and offer the benefits of this decision:

A recent decision at the Department of Defense was to abandon the role of the social media director and instead transfer that position’s responsibilities onto many shoulders in the organization. It is very difficult for a single department or division to speak with the knowledge and authority of all the business units of an organization. “Official” responses often require time and research. They frequently result in formal answers that do not fit the casual tone inherent in social media. By formally distributing the tasks and response functions to those who have the knowledge required to have meaningful online conversations on social media channels, you can decrease maintenance costs, increase trust in those exchanges and reduce the number of missteps or rounds of interaction it takes before citizens get the “right” response from your agency. (pages 110-112)

Jim Garrow, who blogs at “The Face of the Matter” makes a similar case: “My point, and it naturally follows from last week’s post on having others write for your agency, is that we [PIOs] need to get the hell out of the way. Let your agency shine through every day. Give your experts the podium they deserve. Build them a following (or let them build a following).”

BUT HOW WOULD THIS WORK FOR PUBLIC SAFETY ORGANIZATIONS?
The Toronto Police Department provides an example of complete decentralization of social media content. As can be seen in the image below their agency’s website homepage has all the “big 3″ social media buttons: Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. These buttons take the user to their official account, most likely administered by a Public Information Officer.

Choose, however, the “Connect with us” tab right below it, and their world opens up. I counted 119 different social media accounts for this organization–119! What are all these people talking about? Ideally, the content they are posting should be directly related to their position or function in the organization, and with each of the samples I chose at random, that proved to be the case. Take for instance Sgt Jack West (@SgtJackWest)—who has the title of “Traffic Enforcement.” No shocker, he talks a lot about traffic and how people can stay safe–e.g “Don’t text and drive” etc.

Motoryclist down on lakeshore Blvd, west of Kipling Ave. Emergency Services on location

— Jack West (@SgtJackWest) May 28, 2013

Patricia Fleischmann or @caringcop on Twitter, has the title of “Vulnerable Persons Coordinator.” What does she post about? How elderly and other people who might be vulnerable to crime and natural disasters can be better prepared. She also Tweets quite a lot about people that are helping each other, organizations folks can turn to for assistance, and information from community meetings she attends. She has a healthy following of 762 people.

#SeniorSafetyTipoftheDay – “Be prepared” for #emergency. #EPWeek youtube.com/EmergMgtON@torontopolice @dpsu_tps @torontocomms #CityofTO

— Patricia Fleischmann (@CaringCop) May 10, 2013

I could go on for while with examples, but feel free to explore of these great social feeds yourself by clicking here. So, how do they keep everyone in their “lane?” How do they keep all of these people from embarrassing the organization and posting inappropriate content? Yikes–this is scary territory!

I have been told by some of these Toronto Tweeters, that they do the following:

Before they get their social account, they are required to attend a 3-day intensive social media training class that provides them with not only information about how and why to use social networks, but also how NOT to use them. This would include Department and City posting policies.

Each of the accounts are clearly marked with the fact that the person works for the Toronto Police Department, however, they do often choose to use their own picture instead of the PD’s logo–giving the account a personal touch, which I think is critical for community outreach and engagement (it says to the public–we are people to).

Each account states that they do not monitor the account 24/7, and that if anyone needs emergency assistance they should dial 911. (See below–each person’s account information looks almost identical.)
Each Twitter profile links back to the official website.

This obviously is not a willy nilly hey, all-you-guys-go-Tweet-something strategy. Their strategy is obvious, their goals are clear; and it seems to me they are meeting the objectives of reaching out and connecting with the public on platforms that the public uses everyday.

See, it’s not so scary after all!

This post was previously published at iDisaster 2.0.

Kim Stephens is an independent emergency management consultant and the lead blogger of iDisaster 2.0 where she writes about the benefits as well as the challenges the emergency management community and other public sector entities might face when employing new information communications technologies before, during and after a crisis. She has over a decade of experience in the field of emergency management. Her experience has spanned federal, local and non-governmental organizations: from the US Environmental Protection Agency, to the Tennessee Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management, and the American Red Cross. She has a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Texas A&M University.

 

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