Twitter – publicity or engagement?

In the past few days I read the interesting paper from Jeremy Crump analysing what the police are doing on Twitter.

It charts the developments that have taken place since 2008 when the first police forces in the UK started using the social networking site. The aim of the research paper as stated, was to address three questions:

  1. How are police forces using social media as part of their engagement strategy?
  2. What evidence is there of success, and in particular, is the police use of social media creating new forms of engagement with the public?
  3. Is the use of social media disruptive of existing culture and organisations in police forces or does it tend to reflect or even reinforce them?

All these are interesting discussion points and depending on your involvement in communication, policing or the public sector you will have a specific view. Crump concludes from viewing ‘the most active accounts’ that “exchanges within networks are infrequent and the nature of Twitter means that conversations are difficult to join (because they are only semi-visible). In many cases one-way broadcasting of requests for information dominates other comment.”

I can’t agree with that conclusion. There are many cases where a Twitter chat takes place and involves anyone who wants to take part and has a view about the subject matter. This can be seen with the interactive #commschat on Monday evenings where discussions regularly take place and there are many others. Police use of Twitter, at least within Greater Manchester Police, has always been centered around two-way conversations and ensuring that engagement takes place. It is what makes the social network more than just a way of broadcasting messages and elevates it beyond the news release.

Crump does recognise the benefits Twitter has in times of operational policing activity including the August disorder and even the GMP24 Twitter day back in October 2010. It provides a way of putting out frequent news updates, tackling rumours and providing public service announcements. On this I think most people can agree. The use of social media during major incidents, as with the disorder, has huge positives that can overshadow the negative elements if entered into in the right way.

Twitter, as with other social networks, has its power in the transparency and openness of the interaction and the analysis by Crump is quite right to highlight the challenges that brings to police forces. But he goes on to assert that this challenge means that real engagement is not really taking place. Crump states:

“It is hard to see that Twitter will become a platform for discourse about neighbourhood policing priorities.”

However, I am seeing that happen now with the many police neighbourhood teams that are using Twitter. They ask people for views, concerns and issues and highlight what the priorities are, and yes, this is about a dialogue taking place.

The final words of the research paper are:

“As for accountability and engagement, it seems likely that Twitter’s strength will be as a means of publicising issues and conversations that will take place elsewhere, whether in other online fora such as virtual beat meetings, or perhaps on Facebook, or in public meetings.”

For me, this cannot be the ultimate aim for the use of Twitter by police forces. The social network provides a way of developing contacts and acts as an introduction to further face-to-face and online meetings. But that is more than just publicising other avenues for communication, it is about having conversations through the social network. These can be really productive conversations and above all Twitter gives people a voice, whoever they are.

The opportunities of Twitter are only just starting to be realised by police forces and there is still more that can be done. It would be wrong and short-sighted of people to pigeonhole Twitter and to not keep pushing the boundaries to see what can be achieved by using it. The research by Jeremy Crump makes some interesting points, but above all it has made me more determined to squeeze more out of the corporate use of Twitter to prove what it can bring to organisations.

Twitter

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3 Responses to Twitter – publicity or engagement?

  1. johnpopham says:

    I agree with you Amanda that there are some points being missed here, and that Twitter, if used right, can be a powerful tool for two way communications and a growing part of the police force’s engagement armoury.

    However, I feel there is a bigger point being missed, which is that Twitter, for the moment at least, is not really the right tool for engaging the public in this way. Whether we like it or not, the place where most people hang out on the web is Facebook, It is a much more difficult tool to use in this way than Twitter, but, if done right, it will reach much bigger audiences. I have seen some interesting examples of individual police officers interacting with local neighbourhood Facebook pages, but I have not seen evidence of the police using Facebook in a concerted way.

  2. Tom Phillips says:

    I agree with John, but only to the extent of saying “yes, but it depends how you use Twitter. Most local Police use I have seen is very good but is not particularly “engaging”. That’s to say that it tends to take the form of alerts, warnings, statements and advice (etc). Twitter is great for getting that out, retweeted etc, but those sorts of things are not conversation starters in themselves.

    Might be several reasons for that. They may simply be necessary “one and done” comments, about which further discussion is a bit superfluous. Or they may, as one example, be coming from staff/officers perfectly capable of sending out that sort of remark, but insufficiently empowered or resourced to be able to enter into conversations. That’s probably to suggest that most of what is coming out is basic operational material, and that the more strategic stuff from senior officers is either not yet really on social media, or not on Twitter.

    In my own part of the world, I’m aware of great operational tweets, but last week, received an 8 page glossy A3 newsletter from my local Force about all sorts of interesting things, yet at no point anywhere in it was theree ANY reference to any sort of social media whatsoever. No Twitter, Facebook, nothing. Would have been easy for the authors (presumably senior officers or comms people or agency) to have referred to the excellent operational tweeting going on, but they didn’t even do that. This says a lot to me about how social media, and perhaps Twitter in particular, is perceived in Police circles at the moment.

  3. Lou says:

    Hard to see Twitter as somewhere to discuss policing priorities?

    I’d have thought for a lot of us who use it’s the first place we’d come to moan when experiencing bad behaviour, threatening behaviour etc. perfect opportunity to engage with those not normally part of the conversation (perhaps) who feel strongly enough, nevertheless to comment on their neighbourhood. And considering that we all live in neighbourhoods, I’m struggling to see why my view here should count less than if I give up one of my precious evenings.

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