On The Skids

Yesterday the Guardian published an article about the Metropolitan Police Service Air Support Unit and the use of their twitter account @mpsinthesky. The full article can be read here.

The matter revolves around complaints that the helicopter has received, across Twitter, from members of the public upset by the noise the helicopter makes. Such complaints are not uncommon. As a regular contributor to my own forces account I am well aware of how the tweet complaints / questions come in when the chopper is overhead someones home. They will vary from basic questions such as ‘what’s happening in x’ or concerns like ‘the helicopter is overhead. Should I be worried?’ We also get complaints about noise and these are predominantly at night. Nobody wants a disturbed nights sleep and the noise from the helicopters can upset many people.

Yet the crux of the issue is not the complaints that have been made but the way they have been responded to. When a tweet to an account is replied to it will automatically put the original tweeters @ name at the beginning of the reply. Otherwise the original tweeter may not see the account has replied. However, such a reply would not appear on the timeline of every other follower the replying account has. The tweet is there to be seen if people go looking and drill down into the account but it won’t show on followers timelines because it starts with ‘@’.

If you put any text whatsoever before the ‘@’ symbol on a reply then the tweet will go to the timeline of every single follower the account has. So what have MPSinTheSky done? When they replied to at least 3 tweeters they put a full stop (a dot) before the ‘@’ symbol..  like this.

. @anyuser… reply reply reply.

In the Guardian report the Met Police are quoted as saying

The Metropolitan police said the @MPSinthesky account was designed “to engage with its followers and other Twitter users who raise questions about its work”, adding that it added a character before the @ symbol “so that @MPSinthesky followers continue to be informed of the incidents the ASU are involved in”.

In itself this response seems MPSokfairly laudable. So looking at the tweets it seems, at a quick glance that it is something that the account does. Here is an example of how they have replied to a tweeter but using a dot have put an image on the timeline of all their followers that may be of interest.

They have replied to the tweet and added the image for all to see. There really is no problem with this. So then we have to look at one of the tweets that has been raised as a problem.


In this tweet we can see that the user Sarah has posted a fairly light hearted tweet about the noise overhead.

The reply again has the dot added and goes to every followers timeline. Yet the reply is loaded with sarcasm. To be fair it’s the sort of sarcasm that officers use on a daily basis  amongst themselves but don’t generally voice to the public. So was it right to use such sarcasm and was it right to (dot) the tweet and share with all?

Many times as a traffic cop I have politely told a member of the public that the road is closed and no they cannot go that way. When I have spoken to colleagues I may have expressed my frustration at how some people are incapable of reading signs and understanding why the cones are all the way across the road. This is common and is not unique to the police. Staff who deal with a nasty customer in a shop will no doubt remain polite and then voice their anger and frustration to other staff later.

This is the rub of the issue with the tweets. The first example is a little unorthodox in twitter parlance but ok. The second example has a tone of voice that would normally be kept for private conversation with colleagues. This is then exacerbated by the fact that the MPSinTheSky have chosen to share that sarcasm with 91k followers.

Is the MPSinTheSky therefore responsible for the replies that have been engendered. In some ways yes they are. They chose to (dot) the tweet and shared that sarcasm. Social media users do regularly pick up on such posts and the replies then follow. Those replies can be supportive or go straight into criticising the complainer. This has clearly happened in this case.

So what should they have posted? They should have simply replied;

“Sorry to have disturbed you Sarah. We were helping @MPSWandsworth find a suspect with a knife.”

This is polite. It contains the same information without the sarcasm and is not going to every single follower of their account.

The action of putting the (dot) before the tweet in this complaint case is akin to saying ‘I know most of you support us and our fight against crime… but look at what this idiot is saying’ – That is clearly not a message that we as the police should be publishing.

So going back to the quoted Met statement. A quick review of the account shows the use of the (dot) on a few occasions but as you scroll back there are none. This is borne out by an examination of the recent tweets but also because if they had been doing this for a long time then the complaint, as made, would have come much earlier. The statement from the Met is therefore either announcing a ‘new policy’ on how they tweet (they haven’t said this) or is a damage limitation exercise.

So what happens now. The fact that the MPSinTheSky account did not respond demonstrates a state of panic. Maybe they missed it amongst all the mentions? Possible but I find that a bit hard to believe. The silence tends to suggest that the mistake is realised and they either do not know what to do about it or have been told not to by the Comms team.

Are the MPSinTheSky responsible for the mysogynistic tweets? In simple terms, no. They cannot account for what other people may tweet but it is blatantly clear that they could have prevented it happening in the first place by not posting the tweets.

In reality the account is a good one. They have a strong following and  regularly post engaging and informative tweets. They have made a mistake. They have inappropriately applied sarcasm to a small number of tweets and then exacerbated it by sharing with all their followers.

Advice is needed. An apology would go a long way too. They should then get on with doing the good job they do on a daily basis.

Are MPSinTheSky on the skids? No. Error is the discipline through which we all advance. They should be allowed to learn from this incident, move on and become even better as a consequence.

19 thoughts on “On The Skids”

  1. I think it’s also worth noting that the account as asked to take down the tweet that lead to this making to the news a few days before (possibly twice) and didn’t respond.

    I’ve heard some describe this as a storm in a teacup but it’s the failure to respond or acknowledge the distress their tweet caused that has created it. A simple apology/acknowledgement/deletion/explanation could have prevented this escalating.

    NB.this does not refer to the tweet quoted in your piece but a later one

    1. I agree entirely. Swift intervention and correction would have saved an awful lot of heartache. Some may say deleting the tweet would be admitting it was wrong. No big deal here because it was wrong.

      I really believe that they either didn’t know what to do or had pressure from the Comms team / command to remain silent.

      Sadly it is a well known fact that if you leave a silence, other users will fill that void with rumour and speculation. That can only ever be destructive.

      This is where damage limitation backfires. Simply dealing with the matter immediately with honesty would have solved it there and then.

  2. This would be all well and good if this was an isolated incident. It is not. The author of the original article identified two other women that MPSinTheSky had treated in the same way. There are others. As yet, there has been no apology, as I write, and I doubt any “advice” has been given either – not that it would make an iota of difference. Once again, officers get to go about their job [sic] while the public have to tolerate institutionalised bigotry. Nice work if you can get it.

    1. I think I reinforce that in the blog. The allegation of institutionalised bigotry is as extreme as some of the replies the MPSinTheSky account engendered. The final sentence then doesn’t make sense at all.

  3. How *dare* police answer back! Oh the temerity of them speaking to middle-class NIMBYism and know your place, son anti-police hegemony.


  4. Whatever one might think of those that choose to complain over what is a very important weapon in our arsenal in the fight against crime, the responses that were tweeted were unprofessional and those responsible for them should be able to rise above their level of idiocy and respond appropriately particularly when doing so from an ‘official’ account.

    1. It is a vitally important piece of equipment and one the public are going to have to live with until we find a quieter and cheaper alternative. Drones?

      There is a section of the public who will always complain. Many people complain about sirens. One of the most important topics at #CopTweet14 was tone of voice and getting it right.

      On this occasion they got it wrong and then amplified their mistake to 91k accounts. They should apologise and move on.

      1. Tone of voice is so important when writing rather than speaking. Some times words imply a different tone when written in a certain way as would be the case when spoken.

  5. I don’t think they were wrong to .@ their reply. The nature of noise complaint etc. that police helicopters get is that they will likely be of concern to many others in the area. Therefore spreading the explanation widely is sensible, and rather the point of having the @MPSinthesky twitter feed.

    Humor and sarcasm aren’t out of place either. I sure that one of the reasons that they have so many followers is that, unlike so many official police twitter accounts they actually tweet like a human being not a PR automaton.

    Maybe it was slightly spikier that it should have be but only marginally, it certainly did not deserve the hysterical press coverage it got.

    1. To be fair I don’t think the Guardian piece was hysterical. Far from it. It did point out some of the accusations that were flying around though.

      The .@ was folly. There are no two ways about it especially when compared to the better, (albeit unusual practice) example provided in the post.

      Humour has a place within police use of social media. Sarcasm may have its place occasionally too. They can at times be inextricably linked. However, the balance is a fine line and on this occasion they got it wrong. It’s not a big deal but they let themselves down by not correcting it immediately.

      The fact they have a so many followers is because they are a good police account. Something we are becoming increasingly better at across the country as a whole.

    2. Agree. What noone has mentioned either is that Ms Buckley tweeted her complaint to all her followers. If she had tweeted MPS directly I would be more sympathetic.

      Furthermore, “our helicopter was used to catch a criminal with a knife” is an example of communicating their worthwhile work.

      Having said all that, the blog author makes a compelling case for them not doing this kind of thing again.

      1. Thank you for the compliment.

        I think official accounts like this should expect public comment as such. It increases accountability and transparency. That can only ever be a good thing.

  6. It’s too bad the Storify didn’t go on to show the further interaction between the officer & Ms Buckley. It all looked pretty cordial to me. It’s notable that Ms Buckley herself is not one of the
    outraged of Stoke Newington.

    I hope we do not go on to discover that the Storifys relating to supposed different treatment for male and female tweeters fail to stand up to scrutiny.

  7. Whilst I’ve always enjoyed the sarcasm, I appreciate that many find it unprofessional. I hope that MPSinthesky can continue to Tweet about their work, showing a sense of humour but not offending anyone

  8. Oddly perhaps, I take views which contradict each other. First, if the responses were compiled in the non .@ manner it would have been ‘politer’ and more appropriate. The replies therefore would not have engendered discussion. This blog wouldn’t be here, the Guardian would have been sensationalising other police conduct, carpers and complainers would still carp and complain. Second, if one complains on widely accessed social media about police helicopter activity infringing upon one’s nimby ism then one perhaps should expect to be told publicly the salient facts. I like the polite version and appreciate the impolite too.

  9. Spot on!
    The dot & cynicism was targeted to get responses from their followers. If an error fine, though it seemed purposeful to impact on the “complainer”. If so…wrong.
    Apologise, learn from it, stay calm and carry on.
    The media play their part in escalating it all out of proportion.
    The Met Police in the sky twitter account is excellent and has 1000’s of followers, so it must be going something right. Just don’t play to the troll mob!

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