The digital beat: policing social media

Summary: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.

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.

Topics: Social Enterprise, Security, Tech Industry

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