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Missing a Trick – a UK perspective on police and social media for #poltwt

A Brief History of Breaking News

Once upon a time, when Newspapers ruled the world, our news was fed to us the day after things had happened.

Television, with its scheduled news bulletins, reduced that delay from days to hours. If an event was important enough, regular viewing would be interrupted with a NEWS FLASH. Short, sweet and usually just a headline – the main coverage would follow in the later news programmes.

Managing the media message was relatively easy for the authorities and the situation was usually over before anyone really got any details of it. A high ranking member of the emergency services could be put in front of the cameras to deliver the message “we have been there and we have dealt with it.”

Stories usually made some kind of sense and everything was in the past tense.

24 hour news channels changed things dramatically. In the absence of a really newsworthy event you were forced to watch the televisual equivalent of Groundhog Day as the same reports were recycled every half an hour until something more important happened.

When something more important did occur, a banner exclaiming BREAKING NEWS would run across the screen and, while reporters were racing to the scene, a holding statement would be read by the presenter with the promise of “more, as soon as we get it”.

When the reporters arrived they would set up and start reporting live. There was no need to interrupt the schedules because news now had its own dedicated channels. Coverage would show emergency services in action whilst the presenter tried to find witnesses to interview.

Press conferences became more important but the message changed subtly to “we are there and we are dealing with it.”

Then came 9/11. This was the first time in history that a major disaster was broadcast live. You could barely believe that the first plane had hit when you watched in slow motion as the second one followed suit.

Nobody had the first clue as to what the hell was going on. Well – they did – they could see it happening before their eyes but none of it made any sense. The TV networks struggled to keep up with events. All the millions of bewildered viewers had to go on was what they could actually see plus the wild and fevered speculations of the presenters.

Fear was being broadcast into people’s living rooms in real time.

No amount of careful media management would ever be able to cope with an event of this magnitude but it serves to illustrate that sometimes you can just lose control.

9/11 changed our lives in 2001. A mere three years later a phenomenon was born which changed the rules once more. Social Media. 9/11 took place in a city which was home to more cameras than probably any other place on earth, but social media now turned every smartphone into its own window on the world.

Anybody and everybody could find themselves suddenly creating the news. A regular reporter or journalist was unlikely ever to be the “first on the scene” again.

Social Media allows raw, uncensored pictures and comments to be circulated to an unsuspecting audience within seconds of an event taking place. Instantly. No restrictions, no editorial control.

The message that the emergency services now have to manage is “we’re not there and we’re not dealing with it yet.”

Getting it Right – Social Media in a Crisis

In January 2013, a helicopter struck a crane and crashed directly onto a London city street.

I live hundreds of miles away from London but within minutes pictures of the event erupted onto my Twitter feed. These pictures were taken within seconds of the incident and revealed a scene of complete carnage. There were no emergency services personnel in the pictures. They hadn’t yet arrived. I would be surprised if the first Twitter picture didn’t go into circulation before the end of the first 999 (911) call.

Then came the speculation. Was it a terrorist attack? Was it a plane? Was another flying object going to fall out of the sky?

The helicopter crash was the first real test of social media in an emergency in the UK since the riots of summer 2011, on which occasion (with a couple of notable exceptions such as Greater Manchester) most police forces were caught on the hop.

Twitter and BBM were used by rioters to fuel the rioting. An open channel from the scene had once been the preserve of the police with their sophisticated encrypted radios but they no longer had the edge. Police were outmanoeuvred by rioters with Nokias and Blackberrys.

Fortunately, in London 2013, the authorities got it exactly right.

Very quickly, my timeline filled not just with rumour but with official information. Local police stations such as @MPSWandsworth the fire service, the ambulance service, the rail networks and others began to tweet what they knew and what they were doing. They retweeted each others’ information and soon smothered the speculation.

You can read my full analysis of how events and commentary unfolded HERE

There was no time to wait for official guidance or for an approved media message. Frontline officers trusted with use of social media used their experience, common sense and did a magnificent job.

Unfortunately, the use of social media across the police forces of the UK is inconsistent so if a similar incident were to happen anywhere else, there is no guarantee that this text-book response would be repeated.

Getting it Right – Social Media as Community Engagement

Social Media is not just valuable in major events and incidents. Used properly it can be an incredible community engagement tool. Much time is spent wondering how to reach “hard to reach groups” – social media is one such route and you ignore it at your peril.

The best police accounts in the UK are those which engage in dialogue. It is no coincidence that these also have the largest followings.

Two fine examples are @MPSinthesky the Twitter account of the Metropolitan (London) Police Air Support Unit – and @SolihullPolice based in the West Midlands.

@MPSinthesky tweets 24 hours a day. It explains why the helicopter is in the air and it “talks” to followers on the ground.

“Why are you above my house?” says worried follower
“We are looking for a missing person” comes the reply

“Ah good” says follower “no axe murderer for me to worry about then. Can I help?”

@SolihullPolice are probably best known for their legendary “cannabis tweet” of December 2012.

“Anyone lost a huge amount of cannabis in the Chelmsley Wood area? Don’t panic, we found it. Please come to the police station to collect it”

The tweet went viral. This is how social media is supposed to be – human, engaging and responsive.

Many forces are still getting this wrong. They use social media as a notice board. The “conversation” is more “monologue”: a means to broadcast messages but without responding to comments which follow.

We have christened this “Vanilla Tweeting.” Bland, beige, boring tweets alerting us to the next local public meeting or reminding everyone to lock their doors and windows. Overuse of corporately approved words like “robustly” and “stakeholders” which look like they were posted by a Bot.

These messages can be important and they do have a place but these forces are missing the point of social media: it is supposed to be a conversation.

If I were walking the beat would I do so in silence, carrying a notice board covered with crime prevention leaflets I can point at? No! I would talk to people, chat to them, answer their questions, listen to what they have to say. Social media should be no different.

If I am trusted to go to a public meeting to represent the police and talk about policing matters why can’t I be trusted to do the same on Twitter or Facebook?

The Fear

National guidance on police use of social media has been issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) but it is up to the chief officer of any individual force to decide if social media is to be used and who can use it.

Some chiefs use it personally and allow their staff to do so freely.
Others don’t and refuse to allow their staff to engage freely either, preferring instead to allow access only to a couple of press officers. The force might have an official account but individual officers do not.

I believe there are three principal reasons why some chief officers are reluctant to embrace social media:

1. With the best will in the world some just don’t “get it” and will need to be convinced of its value.
2. There is a fear of loss of control of message. Everything has to be corporate.
3. There is a fear that some of their officers will damage the reputation of the force by tweeting things they shouldn’t.

There is some justification for these concerns but nothing which couldn’t be countered by effective training, guidance and support.

Police officers in the UK are subject to a number of occupation- related restrictions on their private lives. They are not allowed to be “actively engaged in politics” for example. The discipline code also creates offences of bringing the service into disrepute or undermining public confidence in the police.

Over the last two years the UK government has imposed unprecedented reform on the police service. At a force level, governance has been restructured and budgets have been slashed. Officers have had their pay and pensions reduced and their terms and conditions of service changed. It would be an understatement to suggest that none of this has gone down well.

UK police officers cannot strike and are not permitted to be members of a trade union, so a number of officers have turned to social media to vent their frustration. Some chose to do this with their official hats on and, in a few cases, this has led to formal disciplinary action.

It has also created a new breed of police tweeter – the anonymous.

Behind the Mask

There are three types of anonymous police tweeter:

1. The Casual – someone who identifies themselves as a police officer but mostly talks about other things and occasionally joins in with police related debate.
2. The Safe – those who blog and tweet about police related matters but who try to stay the right side of the discipline code.
3. The Risk-taker – those who blog or tweet exactly what they think. No holds barred. Often openly critical of government, senior officers and sometimes the public.

In the grand scheme of things it is Type 3 who holds most fear for senior officers.

I am only anonymous because I have to be. My force doesn’t allow officers to tweet on its behalf. So instead, I hide behind a Darth Vader mask. I talk about incidents or issues which affect me and my colleagues but I don’t talk about specifics. I don’t say where I am and I don’t name names. I use Twitter because I want to promote debate. I would like to classify myself as a Type 2 but that is for others to decide.

Anonymity is not a licence to say what you like.

A Matter of Trust

To work on the assumption that everyone is going to go rogue and be a Type 3 tweeter is somewhat unfair.

The answer is not to prevent everyone from using social media “just in case” but to allow everyone to use it until such time as that trust has to be withdrawn. If something goes wrong, deal with the individual.

The chances are that the vast majority of those who want to use social media will respect the guidance and rules. If they don’t – don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Some officers have stopped using Twitter because they fear for their jobs if they get it wrong by mistake – such an atmosphere is oppressive.

Police forces are missing a trick if they don’t engage properly on social media. It is not the only way to talk to people and it doesn’t replace face to face contact but if I want to get a message out quickly to thousands of people, I can do so in seconds. I send it once and others retweet it.

The hard bit seems to be convincing some senior officers of its value and helping them get over their reluctance.

This fear is not universal: some senior officers are ahead of the game. I can say it no better than the Chief Constable of Leicestershire, Simon Cole, (@CCLeicsPolice) who says this:

“I trust my officers with an ASP baton, CS Spray, handcuff and firearms. I should be able to trust them with a smartphone.”

We have seen that social media can be used in a crisis and we have seen the popularity of those accounts which use it as a conversation and community engagement tool.

The public use it freely and in many places the police don’t – and that – for me – is a tremendous shame.

My heartfelt thanks, as ever to the wonderful Rachel Rogers @DorsetRachelfor editing this blog.

Allow me to introduce myself – my name is Nathan Constable and I am a serving police officer in the United Kingdom. Actually – that isn’t exactly true. I am a serving officer but that’s not my real name. Nathan Constable is a pseudonym. The use of social media by serving UK cops is still something of an issue hence me hiding behind a mask – more on that later. I have worked within policing since 1994 and I am an Inspector in an English force. For those reading Stateside who may be unfamiliar with our rank structure that makes me roughly a Lieutenant.



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