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BLOG: To Tweet Or Not To Tweet? That Is The Question

By SgtGaryWatts  |  Posted: October 07, 2011

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From the Kreslu Kernow blog.

I have always been a bit of an internet geek, gadget freak etc etc and to a certain degree I assume you are too as you are sat in front of your computer, phone or tablet reading this. I am also a huge advocate of embracing change and new technology to improve the service we provide and also make my job as a police officer easier.

This blog post is aimed at colleagues within the police but I hope anyone finds it interesting. I know for those of you who are reading this via Blogger, Twitter and Facebook I am preaching to the converted but this blog will also be emailed around with a view to obtaining a few converts (yes you!)

The internet 'boom' has happened during my career. It wasn't something we used for investigations, communication or even research when I joined and for many years. The introduction of email changed the way we work in a huge way. Our communication is much more efficient and easier. Having internet access at work has made incident management and investigations much more thorough and opens up numerous avenues previously unexplored. Numerous Police Forces have stepped into the world of mobile data giving them this access at the touch of button no matter where you are, I personally am looking forward to the day when us at the 'pointy end' of the country join in with mobile data.

Yet still I see colleagues unwilling to embrace this technology and am confused as to why. I know that some are scared of the equipment or websites worried that the press of the wrong button will cause some sort of melt down. Others see the internet and in particular Social Media as a pariah that has done nothing but to increase our workload with complaints of threats and downright nastiness online. Perhaps they are worried about the wrong thing being said and bringing the force into disrepute? In that respect how is it any different to an email or talking at a meeting? It isn't.

Senior colleagues have said to me that the public don't want us there, it is their world. My answer to this takes us back to Robert Peel. The police are the public and the public are the police, and if that doesn't work for you then they can block, unfollow or unlike. Social Media is about choice. People choose to join in we can't force them. As Nick Keane from the NPIA says 'It's about being part of the conversation'.

It started for me back in 2009 when I officially responded to an online comment here. Questions had been asked (amongst all the nonsense) that deserved an answer, so I did. Clearly it had worked, as the nonsense stopped. The next day I received a call from a senior colleague telling me I shouldn't have done it. I asked 'why?' I was told it was simply because we don't. I asked 'why?' You can probably guess how the conversation continued.

Around this time I was sent by my boss to hear Nick Keane speak to a group from South West forces about the use of Social Media in Policing and came away energised with the thought of 'being part of the conversation.' Searching Social Media at the time for Devon & / or Cornwall Police brought back some pretty negative views and pages (some that are still there) but nothing from us to balance the view. (Try searching Facebook for 'police', just don't do it with kids around!) It showed that we are going to get talked about regardless so why not 'be part of the conversation'.

I went away and started a couple of Facebook Page pilots with the assistance of staff in the Neighbourhood Teams in Bude, Launceston and the Isles of Scilly who do a great job of keeping them going. The results weren't earth shattering but no one was hurt, the organisation was not embarrassed and no one had pressed the mysterious melt down button. What was happening is that people were talking to us, reporting incidents, providing information and commenting on what we were doing.

For those that don't know how these social media sites work we were doing something we can never achieve with our own website. To view our website people have to make the effort to go there. The information we send out via Facebook and Twitter automatically appears in their feeds along with their friends, favourite bands, brands and celebrities. The benefit is clear.

So in 2010 we added to the package with a Falmouth Police Facebook Page and I ventured onto Twitter with @SgtGaryWatts. Slowly other Twitter accounts have appeared after being joined by Sgt Dave O'Neill and SC Andy Robbins starting up in Falmouth. We are now pumping out live updates from incidents, events and convictions in Falmouth and around. The return of Chief Superintendant Chris Boarland has added some huge weight to our SM capability with his long running account but I feel we can do so much more.

We have had valuable intelligence and information about incidents received through Social Media. Accessibility has increased tremendously (for those attached to the internet all day especially) for all. Social Media in Falmouth has complemented the traditional methods in a big way. At the touch of a button a message can reach literally thousands of people and more as people will resend what they find interesting.

The media are using our tweets to fuel their stories (in a good way) and even wrote about the new iPlod Generation in the Western Morning News.

But as I said both myself and the Boss think we can do better. There are superb examples of its use around the country and world including our own Corporate Communications dept during the recent EDL demo in Plymouth.

Pounding the virtual beat is not much different to talking to a group of people and having conversations with each one individually (believe it or not easily done on Twitter). We are still bound by the same police regulations and force policies regarding our conduct and should always be professional but can also be human too (in a virtual way).

Deputy Chief Constable Stuart Hyde of Cumbria Police has blogged about his forces 'code of conduct' which is simple and to the point and is here.

There are currently almost 500 police officers that officially tweet in the UK (Sept 2011 now well over 500!) and around over 50 forces and other specialist units on Twitter. Facebook also produces numerous police accounts around the country all being used in differing ways. Take a look.

How much time does it take up? As little or much as you want or can. A post into Facebook can be cut and paste from a press release in seconds, a Facebook account can be linked to numerous Twitter accounts to send out the info automatically. It will take a few minutes to learn the jargon and 'rules' but it's not rocket science.

So what have I done that you can't? Nothing. I still carry out my normal role I've just added a virtual one for use when I can. I have built up a huge network of people in Cornwall and around the world interested in policing in Falmouth and Cornwall but also there and willing to help at the drop of a tweet.

The big difference to a normal website, and the most important, is that it is a conversation and that conversation needs to be two (or more) way. You will be asked questions as the expert, asked your opinion and even get drawn into debate. Don't be put off. Be legal, be professional, be open and friendly and you won't go wrong.

If you are still not convinced see what the audience has to say. On Wednesday 20th May I tweeted this question -

I need your help! Please let me know why you think police officers SHOULD use social media. Need ammo to convince others. Pse RT

In the time it took to change the headlight bulb in my car (admittedly it was fiddly) I had over 50 responses and they are still coming in! The power of social media.

For the responses see Kreslu Kernow. They won't fit here!

What do you think?

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  • BillKernow  |  October 07 2011, 4:06PM

    I honestly think it would be shortsighted for the police to not be on a digital platform - Twitter is as good as any . I presume you use yuor account to appeal for information and engage with the local community. That can only be a good thing. Twitter is a funny old beast. At once it can be as boring as it is interesting, hearing about what people are eating for dinner one minute, and finding out what's happening in their community the next. So long as it's used responsibly I can't see a problem with it and would encourage any other public figures to jump on board. Less of this top-down society please! Let's join on a level playing field!

  • Jonas131415  |  October 07 2011, 12:14PM

    I'm not a Policeman or from Cornwall but I have to say I like having policeman on Twitter. Several local policeman use Twitter and it makes them more human. The days of a local community policeman that everyone knows may have gone, but Twitter goes someway to redressing the balence. Reading a general account of a policeman's day is very helpful, and also reminds readers of the local issues being addressed. A little friendly banter does no harm either. Regarding the risks surely a trained policeman can be trusted to know what to tweet and how to tweet it without giving away sensitive information or naming suspects. I assume these are skills used everyday. Yes, some people use social networking for wrong doing, but that does not mean decent lawabiding people should abandon it. Do we abandon telephones because some poeple use them to plan criminal activity? There is a much more positive side. The chances of finding a missing person (child or vulnerable adult) must be improved if within seconds hundreds, maybe thousands, of people are on the lookout. 'Senior colleagues have said to me that the public don't want us there' - As you rightly say, social networking is not about what I don't want to follow; I can easily avoid that. It is about what does interet me and what I choose to follow. This is not an age thing either. I'm in my 50's and enjoy social networking and follow several policeman.