In June 2011 I had been tweeting and blogging for about two months. I had built up a small following and was finding my way, very carefully, in what I considered from the outset to be a complete minefield.
I had a number of people who helped me along the way in my early days. Most notable were @defencegirl and @millybancroft Both were a great help in supporting me when I got things right and politely pointing out where I had got it wrong! There were of course many others and far too many to mention but two other very early supporters and advisors were @MrCliveC and the late Paul McKeever.
One of the early characters (I believe still on here with another name but not one I know) that I got to know was @The_Duty_Sgt . He was a tweeter and blogger and appeared to have it right. Then suddenly the pressures of the organisation, threats of discipline and ‘we don’t like what you are doing’ came to the forefront. He shut down his account. This engendered my blog Social Media and The Police where I outlined some of the many issues the police and police officers faced when using social media.
So here we are three years on. What has changed? What has stayed the same? What has been learned?
There have been quite a few changes. DCC Gordon Scobbie has retired and handed the reins of the ACPO Digitial Engagement portfolio to the DCC of Greater Manchester Police @DCCIanHopkins. The number of official and unofficial police users on social media has soared. We have had some amazing success stories and we have had some very sad ones too. We don’t need to look far to see how successful social media engagement can be for the police. @mentalhealthcop has used the platforms to great effect and become an internationally regarded authority on police and mental health law. I will not comment on the recent history of Sgt Gary Watts from Devon and Cornwall police. Primarily because I know nothing about his situation. What can be said though is that his use of social media and the Gangnam Policeman Video was brilliant.
This raised a considerable amount of money for the SuperJosh charity. As a result Josh has become very popular with police officers on social media across the country and is raising awareness of brain tumours with children. Following the murder of PC’s Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes the #coverforGMP project went national. Under the drive of @constablechaos the suggestion grew and grew. In the end, every single force in the country sent two officers to assist GMP over the two days of the funerals. Hundreds of other officers from around the country simply attended under their own steam to pay their respects. It was a remarkable thing to see and really brought the public and the police together in very tragic and painful circumstances.
The number of official police accounts has grown considerably. Officers appear to have more trust and are, in most cases, being actively encouraged to use social media. Forces accounts are much better than they were. Some have remained fairly static with their engagement whilst others have exploded into activity. Those that have done exceptionally well are often (but not limited to) the accounts that have active and respected social media users in their ACPO team. The latter has seen a massive increase and we have some great ACPO users on twitter who are ready to engage and discuss matters with officers and the public. Look no further than @cclynneowens, @garryforsythWMP and @accgarethmorgan. All the users, be they force, officer or anon have all increased their audience. For all intents and purposes the last three years have been a runaway success.
Not so fast. Before we start patting ourselves on the back look a little deeper. Some force accounts have stayed fairly static and uninspiring. Some force accounts still demonstrate that they are totally afraid of social media and engage only when they have to. Some officers have also, as I predicted in my first blog, fallen by the wayside. Some through their own actions and others because somebody, somewhere, didn’t like what they were posting. The former is expected, understandable and a natural part of the process. The latter though was a problem then and is still a problem now.
In my own force I encouraged an officer to get involved with his local police account. He had the skills and the insight. He would be brilliant. After convincing his Sgt and Insp that he would be ok the officer got the green light. He was brilliant, posted great content, increased followers by 1000’s within a month and really put the account on the map. Yet within the organisation was somebody who didn’t like it. As a consequence he was pulled off the account. It was sorted and he got going again. Another complaint and he was pulled from the account again. Unsurprisingly, the officer could do without the hassle and constant threat of discipline, so gave up. Officers around the country have posted on twitter that they are shutting down (both official and anon) because they are being squeezed by the organisation and their Professional Standards Dept.
Another very well respected police tweeter has been recognised at national level but his home force will not support him. They don’t like his content. The officer tweets in a personal capacity only and the great skills and knowledge he has to offer are being ignored.
I have, compared to many police tweeters, had a good ride. There were a few hiccups early on but I then had superb support from my then DCC and the corp comms team. I am building my reputation within the force as an advisor, mentor and engagement lead. Yet occasionally I will post content that generates complaint. Officers around the country have found they can build something up but it only takes someone to complain for gravity to kick in.
Then the unthinkable happened. West Midlands Police suspended the account of @mentalhealthcop. There is a report in the Guardian that outlines the circumstances. There was uproar on twitter and many newspapers and radio/tv news programs picked up on the story. The upshot is that the account was reinstated quite quickly. What was entirely evident in this case though was the willingness of ACC Garry Forsyth to engage with social media users about the issue. He assured a quick and proportionate resolution and that is, from my perspective, exactly what happened. This approach dovetailed beautifully with comments made by DCC Ian Hopkins when he said that forces need to ‘encourage officers to get involved and support them when they get it wrong’. I’m not suggesting @mentalhealthcop got anything wrong, only that the issue was swiftly resolved. That said I am pretty sure that @mentalhealthcop, notwithstanding his more recent successes came out of the experience somewhat burnt and hurt by the whole situation.
Then today this blog was drawn to my attention by the well respected tweeter @newquaysarge. This blog is so redolent of the blog by @The_Duty_Sgt as he stood down that it could have been written at the same time. Not three years later! We have come so far and yet by this blog we have made no progress at all. The contradictions between views of ACPO and Corp Comms balanced against PSD and ‘others’ seems for want of a better word ‘crazy’.
So what do we do? We are still making some great progress. Some officers have rightly fallen by the wayside and some respected tweeters and bloggers are put through the mill and left feeling like they should simply quit. Particularly when it may seem like there is a witch hunt going on and it starts to cost them money.
Overall we continue to make good progress. Some forces are still as described in the original blog and they really need to pull their socks up. Truth can still be an issue but we are getting better as forces release some control over their news output to operational officers and away from the traditional corp comms route. This I think has been a very bitter pill for Corp Comms teams to swallow. Yet in many regards the successes of our engagement nationally will never make the news as much as where things have gone wrong or are perceived to have gone wrong.
Whilst we have come a long way, it is clear to me that there are still many many people within the police service that do not understand social media. As a consequence they are prone to complain about content they do not understand. This leads to situations where something similar to the ‘Something Must Be Done Act 2014’ by @davidallengreen comes into play.
From nearly 3.5 years of tweeting and blogging I know that all my hiccups came from concerns within the organisation. Not the public.
I know that the few complaints about content I have posted at work have all come from within the organisation. Not the public.
I know that the loss of the officer in my force was from complaints from within the organisation. Not the public.
We know from @newquaysarge that the complaints were from someone within the organisation. Not the public.
This only draws me to one conclusion. Those of us in the police that use social media ‘get it’. The public that we talk to on social media ‘get it’ too. The biggest danger that officers using social media face in 2014 are either themselves or colleagues within their own organisations who simply ‘don’t get it at all’.