The digital beat: policing social media

Your business may not have to deal with issues of life and death in social media, but there are lessons for everyone in how Australia's police forces interact with the public.

Victoria Police online communications team: Peter Clarke (left), Jennifer Greive (centre) and Glen Jones (right).(Credit: Victoria Police)

If you were in Queensland during the floods of January 2011, Kym Charlton's iPad may have saved your life.

The device itself has since been superseded and effectively retired, yet its weathered, black leather case still features a hastily scrawled note, which, at the time, acted as both a mnemonic and a reality check. Two words in thick, white text: DON'T PANIC.

As executive director of the Queensland Police Service's (QPS) media and public affairs branch, Charlton was bunkered down in the State Disaster Coordination Centre while then Premier Anna Bligh and her team of emergency-services specialists alternated between internal briefings and live-streamed press conferences.

The matter at hand? How best to deal with an uncanny series of weather events that would ultimately leave 90 per cent of the state declared a disaster zone.

iPad in hand, Charlton was responsible for posting live updates to the QPS social-media accounts — vital information which, for some Queenslanders, meant the difference between fight or flight; home ownership or homelessness; life or death.

Having convinced the deputy commissioner to sign off on a six-month social-media trial in mid-2010, Charlton and her media team had grown the QPS Facebook page to a respectable following of 6500 by the end of the year. As rain saturated the state throughout December, QPS was in the ideal position to establish itself as the state's singular, trustworthy news source in a time of need.

"It was quite an organic thing for us," Charlton said from her office in the QPS headquarters just outside of the Brisbane CBD. "We'd been using social media for six months, so we immediately moved to get the information out through those channels, because time was so critical."

Charlton is a calm and confident narrator, having had plenty of time to reflect on this topic both in private and public — including a presentation at the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism in Marrakech last year — yet it's clear that the urgency and quality of the work that her team produced in January 2011 is never too far from her mind. The numerous framed awards hanging on her office walls make such matters difficult to forget, in any case.

The QPS social-media presence meant that Charlton didn't have to waste time with the clearance processes that ordinarily hamper police news dissemination. "Rather than me sitting in a disaster-management meeting, listening to the premier being briefed, taking notes, going out and giving it to someone to write a media release, then spending the rest of the day chasing around incredibly busy people to clear the information, I started to post status updates as I heard the premier being briefed," she said. A self-imposed limit of 140 characters per update meant that the news could be bounced from Facebook to Twitter with ease, and without diluting the message.

"We were able to pump out a whole lot of information that we knew wouldn't make the mainstream media; they just wouldn't have picked up that volume of information. It was quite low level, but it was really important if it was about your area," she said.

"For example, the day that the Lockyer Valley flooded was the same day that Brisbane and Ipswich realised there was going to be a major flood. All of a sudden, you had the entire population of both cities desperately trying to work out if their houses were going to flood. A lot of people weren't here in 1974; also, there are way more houses [now] than there used to be. We saw a huge jump of people coming to the page to find that information." On that particular day, 10 January, Charlton sent her first and last tweets at 4.45am and 11.45pm, respectively.

The numbers surrounding 10 January are astonishing. The QPS Facebook page received 39 million individual story views — the equivalent of 450 page impressions per second — while being updated by staff every 10 minutes or so. ("That amount of traffic would have crashed both our public website and our operational website," Charlton noted.) Their Facebook audience grew from 16,500 on 9 January to 165,000 within a fortnight; many of those joined the page during the 24-hour period following the Lockyer Valley torrent. Overnight, the QPS social-media accounts had become a lifejacket to which many Queenslanders clung.

"We just started doing it because it worked."

Though neither QPS staff nor their newfound legion of followers would have realised it at the time — it's fair to say that there were far more pressing matters to consider, like whether their houses would go underwater — this confluence of events exemplified the great big promise of social networking that Zuckerberg et al proselytise: to connect humans with one another, and to share meaningful information immediately.

Charlton's decision to establish and nurture the QPS social-media presence the winter before that unforgettable summer was fortuitous. "We were in that wonderful position where we knew enough to be able to use it [during the floods]," she said. "It wasn't a decision where anyone said, OK, we're going to focus on social media'. We just started doing it because it worked."

With nearly 300,000 Facebook fans as of June 2012 — and an additional 25,000 followers on Twitter — Charlton and her team now manage the largest online community of the eight state police jurisdictions. "We call it the 'digital beat'," she said with a smile. "It's quite remarkable, the way that Queenslanders have taken ownership of us on social media."

Yet, QPS is just one shining star within a tight-knit constellation of Australian police departments that live and breathe social media each day. None of them have spent a single cent on advertising or promoting these channels; fittingly, they've all developed organically through networked word of mouth.

Reaching large numbers immediately

Though the mainstream news media can be relied upon to report on police matters, there's only so much crime that can be squeezed into a half-hour nightly news bulletin, a top-of-the-hour radio news broadcast or within the pages of a daily newspaper. Until recently, limited time and space meant that most news was necessarily constrained to brief sound grabs, talking-head footage and sharp quotes. As a result, the full story behind police news was rarely seen, heard or read.

Shelaye Boothey was acutely aware of those limitations before she joined South Australia Police (SAPOL). Luckily for her, SAPOL (pronounced "say-poll") had seen fit to create a media director role, which demanded a journalistic background, rather than a blue uniform and badge.

South Australia Police media director Shelaye Boothey launching SAPOL's online strategy in February 2011.(Credit: South Australia Police)

"We knew that there was a hunger out there for police news," she said. "There always has been. We know that what police do attracts great public attention, whether it's high drama, unexplained events, crimes, murders — those sorts of things. We're starting from a strong base of people having a real interest in what we do."

Boothey's CV includes a three-year stint as an ABC News director in the Northern Territory, as well as managing crisis communications for the World Health Organisation (WHO). She was appointed to SAPOL in early 2010, and, by February 2011, Boothey had spearheaded a launch of dedicated news websites, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages. The combined audience for the latter three is around 50,000; each platform directs traffic to sapolicenews.com.au, which received over 1.1 million unique visitors last year.

"We were faced with the old news cycle of the mainstream media right up until we launched our news website," said Boothey. "If we wanted to get information out quickly to the public that we were looking for someone, that we'd arrested someone or emergency information to stay clear of a certain area, it could only be done through mainstream media.

"And, yes, they are still absolutely an important part of what we do — they can still reach large numbers quickly — but they can't reach large numbers immediately," she clarified. "They don't generally tend to break into broadcast programming for that. Social media offers us immediate access. The feedback we get from the public is incredible, because they love getting the info at exactly the same time media does."

"Social media is amazing for spreading that message: everyone wants to help."

Kym Charlton concurs with her southern counterpart. "The beauty of social media is that you go into people's pockets," said the QPS executive director, referring to the prevalence of smartphones. "You're not relying on [citizens] to be sitting in front the TV at 6pm, or listening to the radio; you're going to them and saying, 'Hey, we need help about this'."

Charlton cited the "classic example" of child-abduction alerts. "If a child is kidnapped and we have significant fears for their safety, we'll put out an alert," she said. "It's increasingly more difficult to get the mainstream media to cover those; we've had a couple where we couldn't get the media to run them, even though there's a child out there in danger. But what we've found is that social media is amazing for spreading that message: everyone wants to help. It spreads like wildfire. Thousands of people will spread the message before the very first radio announcement."

Managing social expectations

The road to social-media success isn't necessarily smooth and easy. The daily maintenance of comments on a popular, active Facebook page is practically a full-time job in itself, as it requires managing the thoughts, opinions and whims of thousands of individuals, and checking that their behaviour aligns with accepted norms.

For the police, there's the additional complicating factor that many of their status updates are contentious due to their very nature; traffic updates aside, many of these matters will eventually go before the courts.

Self-restraint from posting potentially defamatory, speculative or prejudicial comments is not just a request made by the staff members who monitor these accounts; it's also written into the terms of use for each state's police Facebook page. (Admittedly, that doesn't necessarily mean that all of those who "Like" a page will read those terms, or adhere to them.)

"We find that it's self-moderating; our fan base gets on-board and tells people if they're being stupid."

SAPOL's standard operating procedure for social-media community moderation is quite laissez-faire in comparison to other states. "We let the flow of conversation go," said Shelaye Boothey. "We don't moderate overly heavily. If we disagree with somebody's point of view, we'll let the conversation continue. We find that it's self-moderating; our fan base gets on-board and tells people if they're being stupid."

However, SAPOL has learned to steer clear of mentioning certain topics. "We don't post, say, something about child pornography arrests on our Facebook," said Boothey. "We'll put it on our website, and on Twitter, because that's a push-only mechanism for us. We won't post it on Facebook because we know that it's a highly emotive issue, and we're likely to get those highly emotive and offensive comments. We all know that many people in society have those views, but it'd be unacceptable for us to [publish] them."

Victoria Police online communications manager Glen Jones echoed Boothey's sentiment. "We don't like to remove anything from our Facebook," Jones said of the 15,000-strong audience. "It's only when it crosses a line and becomes offensive to other people or the wider community on the page — it's only in that instance that we'd remove things. It's a public forum. We're all trained and versed in the fact that people are entitled to have their say."

New South Wales Police superintendent Stuart Wilkins using an iPad. (Credit: New South Wales Police)

For New South Wales Police, there was one particular incident that introduced staff to the necessity of sensible Facebook comment management: the disappearance of a six-year-old girl from Sydney named Kiesha Abrahams in August 2010, five months after NSW Police's Facebook page had been created.

"Our Facebook started as a bit of a trainspotters' environment," said Strath Gordon, NSW Police director of public affairs. "It consisted of people who were interested in the cops, or in joining; people who had joined the cops; and members of the policing 'family', if you like. As time went on, the whole flavour changed. We had a couple of spikes which really got the page going; one involved Kiesha Abrahams. That case had a lot of interest, as there was a massive amount of community sympathy.

"The issue with Kiesha Abrahams was ... when you get a high-profile public event, all sorts of [Facebook] pages pop up. Rumours abound; a whole lot information is out there, and not a lot of it is correct," said Gordon.

"What we found is that people migrated to our page, because they knew that that's where the authentic information would be kept. Then we discovered some of the hazards of moderation, where we had to shut down prejudicial material being posted, and shut down threads which contained inaccuracies, defamatory remarks and things of that nature." NSW Police now addresses over 112,000 Facebook fans, and nearly 25,000 Twitter followers.

North of the border, Kym Charlton finds that the QPS Facebook audience now expects comment threads to be closely watched by staff. "They like that we moderate the page," she said. "We expect for it to be a safe place for anyone in Queensland to go to for public-safety information. We want them to be comfortable going there. We want my mum to go on that page if she wants to know what's going on." "You're not dropping the F-bomb on our page," she said. "Drop the 'C word'? You're outta there. I do not tolerate that. Obviously, we've got some really good blacklist set-ups now, so people can't swear on the page unless they get incredibly creative with the spelling.

"QPS gets 4000 pieces of feedback a day," Charlton said. "Just keeping an eye on the page is a big job. The vast majority of people who are banned from our page are people who have 'Liked' the page, jumped on and written 'f*** the police!' and then jumped out again."

Charlton's colleague, senior digital media officer James Kliemt, joined the conversation. "It's not something that happens every day," he said. "There are certain topics that'll get people really emotional."

"And we try to front-end load those [status updates]," added Charlton. "When we put them up, we say, 'We know this is an emotive topic. Be cautious what you say; this matter is now before court.' And they're starting to get that. It's something that we're working on educating them."

This brings us to an essential point of discussion for police using social media: how best to navigate the topic of death?

Death and dismay

QPS claims that one fifteenth of the entire Queensland population is subscribed to their Facebook page. As a result, it's inevitable that there are very few degrees of separation between crimes, victims and families. When a car accident occurs, or a break-and-enter is reported, it is likely that someone who has liked the QPS Facebook page will either have seen it happen, will know someone involved or will live nearby; perhaps all three.

In extreme cases, criminals may even dob themselves in after experiencing acute social-media guilt. "We had one guy walk into a police station in the south-eastern region and say, 'I give up — I'm on your Facebook page'," said Charlton. "He was good for a couple of armed robberies. He went in and said, 'I just saw myself on your Facebook page, so I thought I'd hand myself in'. That was pretty cool!"

There's one term of use in particular, though, that QPS staff instated only after witnessing the heartbreaking consequences firsthand: namely, don't identify vehicles involved in an accident.

"When we used to post about motor accidents, the first thing that everyone used to jump on and ask was, 'Oh, what car was it? My relative's driving through there at the moment ...'" Charlton said.

Queensland Police Service senior digital media officer James Kliemt (left) and executive director of media and public affairs branch Kym Charlton (right). (Credit: Andrew McMillen)

The first time we realised it was an issue ..." Charlton paused, steeling herself to retell the tale. "There was a motorbike crash on the Sunshine Coast, and a man was killed. However, we never say it's a fatal crash until the next of kin has been advised. As far as police are concerned, you're not dead publicly until your parents know, or someone close to you. So we wrote, 'It was a serious crash, please avoid the area'. About 15 comments down, someone said, 'Oh, god — it's not Paul, is it? He hasn't turned up for work.'"

"It was Paul," Kliemt said. "They were ringing his phone. He travelled along that road to work each day.

"We were just sitting there going, 'Oh my god'," recalled Charlton.

"We could tell just from what they said, in that short line, that it was absolutely the person," said Kliemt.

"That's when we really got heavily into the idea of, 'Don't speculate on what caused a crash. Don't identify the vehicles. No one deserves to get bad news off our Facebook page'," said Charlton.

There's one integral Facebook feature that continues to cause headaches among QPS staff and curious followers alike, though: that peculiar ability to "Like" status updates, even ones that concern the death of another human being.

"We've almost got people to stop asking 'How can you dare like a comment about a death?'" Charlton said. "We tell them, 'They're not saying they like that something bad happened; they like that we told them about it.' That was a huge thing for a while on the page. People would get very upset about it. But it's very rare now that people even comment on it."

"That's a really good example of how you can't sit back and say 'Our page is going to work like this!'" Kliemt added. "We had no idea that that issue was going to come up. It was absolutely out of control, so we had to find a set of ideas to put into our audience's heads about why people do it. There's no way you can plan for that at the start."

Being human on the digital beat

With great audience comes great responsibility, and a tough decision: whether to play it straight. Police work is, by nature, a serious business. At first glance, there's little humour to be injected into a social-media presence created solely for the purpose of distributing information about assaults, murders, robberies, abductions, car accidents, traffic updates and — occasionally — natural disasters. Those who follow the Queensland Police Service have found the opposite to be true, however.

"We're sort of becoming a little bit famous for our 'dad jokes'," said Kym Charlton with a cheeky smirk. "Our followers kept saying, 'You must be a dad, that's such a dad joke!' We really celebrate those. It's nice that they're relaxed enough to do that. People sometimes say, 'Oh, you shouldn't joke, you're police!' But social media is social," she said. "People want to share funny things. If we can inject something to make it a little bit shiny, the interest and the number of people who'll see it is remarkable.

"We've seen significant change in our demographics since we started to inject a bit of humour," Charlton said. "Previously, our bell curve showed 25-34 year olds, and older [were 'Liking' the page]. Since we've started to be a bit more human, the younger demographics are getting much stronger. We're attracting an audience who'd traditionally think, 'Who wants to hang with police?' But they do!"

"We've seen significant change in our demographics since we started to inject a bit of humour."

Charlton cited a favourite recent example cooked up by the team and sent out via Twitter: "NEWS FLUSH: Toilet has fallen off the back of a ute on Marsden Rd, Kallangur #allcisternsdown #ohthepoomanity". She laughed heartily. "'Oh the poomanity!' That hash tag trended around the world! That's gold!"

Another hit is their regular "What The? Friday" photographs, which highlight bizarre occurrences that QPS officers witness in the field. "It's just an attempt to get people to understand that police are human, but also to show them some of the stupidity that our officers deal with," Charlton said. "Those posts have the highest percentage of engagement; they're consistently at the top." (During a tour of the office, we came across a staff member captioning a "What The?" image of geese using a zebra crossing somewhere in southern Queensland; by midnight, it had nearly 3000 "Likes" and over 500 shares.)

Victoria Police is currently experimenting with a regular series of images entitled "CopSpeak!", which show in-context definitions of terms used by officers in the field. Online communications manager Glen Jones explained the motive: "Because we don't promote the page [with funds], we decided to come up with something that people would share to raise a bit of awareness that the page exists," he said. "Queensland has 'What The?', and this was a similar idea about something that's a bit quirky; something that would get shared, basically, and we tend to get fairly good feedback on those."

Queensland Police Service digital media officer Tim Larkin editing a QPS "What The? Friday" image in Photoshop. (Credit: Andrew McMillen)

Strath Gordon pointed to a puppy-naming competition held in May 2011 as an example of NSW Police engaging with its audience beyond the routine reporting of police work. "We breed our own pups for the police dog unit, and every time there's a new litter, we run a Facebook campaign," said the director of public affairs. "Occasionally, we ask our Facebook community to engage in naming those pups. Our last puppy-naming poll got just under 13,000 votes; we published the winning names on our page and integrated all of that with the platforms we were running in The Sydney Morning Herald and on [Channel Seven's] Sunrise. It was a nice little example of community engagement."

Back in the Queensland capital, Kym Charlton reflected on the success of that kind of readily shareable, humour-laced content.

"It's really interesting from an internal communications perspective," she said. "Two years ago, the only feedback our officers got was from mainstream media, and it was often quite negative. The vast majority of people — who are actually really supportive of police — we didn't hear them. And now we do; the officers are getting all this positive reinforcement from the community, so it's a boost for them, as well. I think they really appreciate being shown in a more human light."

Charlton evidently sees no harm in using police social media to entertain as well as inform. "It's a nice bit of fun for the team," she said. "We deal with some fairly grim stuff. It's usually a pretty serious bloody job, so if you get a chance to write about a broken toilet, you grab it."

Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia.

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