Social media is a direct route to telling the public stories of positive policing and engagement with the community, writes Neil Ward
A common perception of members is that positive stories of good policing do not make it to the national news, and there is more than a grain of truth in this. The news values and news framing of everyday journalistic practice do not feature the everyday and occupational results; news organisations are drawn to drama and conflict – to capture the attention of their audience. Good police work and common community engagement is not deemed newsworthy in the news production cycle. While important arrests and considerable drug seizures do make the headlines, they are short-lived.
However, how people source their news is changing, and new avenues to an audience of ‘digital natives’ who do not access news from traditional media organisations are opening up. Researchers in America have identified that many teenagers and younger adults prefer to get their news from social media networks, and mostly through their friends and family.
The Garda Press Office is usi
ng twitter to directly communicate with the public, and as a medium is opening a whole new way of interacti
ng with the people of Ireland. It’s working; when the twitter feed carried a link to recent video footage of a missing Alzheimer’s patient on the garda Facebook page, it gained 275,000 views online before, sadly, her remains were discovered.
While the outcome of this cas
e was tragic the numbers are impressive and suggest that the service will have an influence on policing issues in the future, with 35,000 followers to the @gardainfo twitter feed the Garda Press Office can communicate directly with the public in real time and in an unmediated form, no longer relying totally on hourly radio news bulletins or the scheduled television news to get out messages including accompanying photographs and video. With an infinite number of retweets (RT) possible such messages can spread virally.
While the impact on policing has yet to be measured, the potential is unlimited. And the press office has found a ‘personality’ that suits the voice of twitter, of an amiable humorous police officer – that takes no nonsense. Twitter also allows the public to converse openly or directly with the message.
The Garda Community info feed has recently hosted a question and answer session on the threat of fraud to the public, with two members from G
BFI spending two hours answering direct questions coming in. Two members of the Traffic Corps from Naas also did a Twitter Q&A on road safety and traffic laws.
This messaging is conducted in real time with no inherent delays of press release and mediated messaging. Reports are going directly to the public.
Garda Press Officer, Superintendent David Taylor said, “We are going straight to the customer by jumping beyond the usual media filter. We are not waiting for the next bulletin. We are giving the customer our message – unfiltered – without some editor making their decision on what we want to say.
“We already have over 35,000 followers, growing all the time, and we have the greatest number of followers in the public service – by a long shot.”
Within the feed are often the most simple messages. Perhaps something as straightforward as saying there will be no access to Jones’s Road from the North Circular at Croke Park after the match. The feed also includes pictures of the congestion – and this mixes in with the message. It gives authenticity.
Inspector John Ferris is particularly enthused by the capabilities of such a service. He said, “If a member sends us a photograph or two in real time, from a smart phone, it helps us to get out a message. When members from DMR Traffic went to Skerries as part of the campaign to reduce speeding, we put up a photo of a member with a speed gun next to the Skerries sign. We were able to say we would be out there – and to ‘leave the speeding to the race track’.
“It was a clear message backed up with an unambiguous image. That’s where you get your traction.”
The twitter feed is growing, with members of the press office going out with operational members to creative a narrative to get across the story. In Croke Park they followed a member around, showing what goes in to policing a successful day. It makes it
easier to highlight police work and community relations by showing what goes in to a day’s work.
David Taylor is a convert to such direct communication. “It is less formal than sending out a press release or doing a press interview. The format relies on informality. There are times when you have to respond tongue-in-cheek. You have to show the organisation’s heartbeat.
“It has humour. You have to as you are reaching out to a community that get their news from twitter now; they don’t read newspapers and they don’t watch the news. Here is where they access their news. It is more casual, but you are not losing the impact of your message. It is the delivery of it.”
Twitter is an intimate medium, and while everyone now agrees that every organisation must use social media – that argument is now over. No one yet has the experience of a police force using twitter in Irish conditions, so the press office are learning quickly and adapting. Every organisation has to figure it out for itself.
There is no manual for twitter, but you must have your own original take on the medium – you can’t be seen to copy anybody and there are different nuances. The garda press office simply had to identify the tone that works best through trial and error. Also, any twitter service has to operate within its allocated resources – and to assess reasonable limits to what is achievable. If it were to open up to the reporting of crime, it would need a different allocation of resources. In its current usage, garda community info promotes and propagates direct information.
Members are encouraged to email their photos of good police work for the twitter feed – to firstname.lastname@example.org
John Ferris said, “It’s like learning a new language; if you are too formal it doesn’t work, we had to change our approach. People queried whether we were a genuine account, so we have been verified. We can tell by the retweets that our followers are into it, if you get too stiff about it you just do not get the retweets and you are denied the potential coverage and reach of the message.
“A twitter direct message to @gardainfo asked “what are you doing about the swarm of wasps?” David Taylor said, “Rather than replying that this was not a garda matter – twitter encourages an informal humorous response. On that occasion we responded by asking if they wanted us to send out a SWAT team? That gained traction and press attention.
“It is proving to work; and the growing number of followers is unequivocal support for the service. It cannot be staid.”
The beauty of social media is that it tells you if your tone is right. Followers will send queries if they aren’t getting the information in the format that they want.
The garda press office continues to mix and match media formats, still doing traditional media interviews – local radio often addresses a different audience alongside social media. By using every available platform to get a message out provides a sophisticated approach to try to pre-empt and prevent any adverse incidents. Members who have experienced this service to augment their policing have praised the service; there is buy-in from garda management too.
From now on, the twitter feed will be live from most major events. The expertise can be used live from the scene, using references and pictures. Content and timing is king: it has to be relevant and timely.
The press office are hoping more members will avail of the service, sending timely information with a picture or two, or a poster of an event. Combined with the website it is a powerful tool.
John Ferris said. “A garda in Tipperary Town was at a reconstruction of a traffic collision, for road safety awareness and sent two pictures to email@example.com – and we loaded it straight to the twitter feed and Facebook. The same applies to both twitter feeds. Immediacy is everything – one or two key pictures – not too formal – is what we want, and soon. It’s no good sending 25 pictures a week later.”
David Taylor said, “It is a way of highlighting good police work on the ground. Operational gardaí are delighted with the service. Younger members in particular are comfortable with social media and its immediacy and reach.”