In the news today there has been a story about police officers and staff being investigated and in some cases disciplined for the inappropriate use of social media.
This led to some discussions ‘on’ social media.. no surprise there! We even had DCC Ian Hopkins (ACPO Digital Engagement Lead) and Steve White (PFEW Chair) discussing the situation on BBC 5 Live. (listen from 1hr 23mins)
Mr Hopkins gave an eloquent and honest overview of the police use of social media. He confirmed that police officers and staff are getting training in the use of social media. He quoted a figure of 6000 for staff/officers trained in his force in this year alone! He also stuck to the basic and accurate standpoint that, like it or not, officers must stick within the code of ethics both on and off duty. He went on to say that he was encouraged by the news story because it highlighted that fellow officers/staff were reporting inappropriate use by colleagues and showed that the service took such use seriously. Quite rightly he also said that inappropriate use of social media was also a ‘societal issue’ and that the service needed to be setting the standards. He closed his first section by pointing out the huge benefits the police and public get from our social media use and how this far outweighs the small number who get it wrong.
As the discussions on social media continued there were several comments made about how to stay safe online. Mantras that will ensure officers tread the correct side of the line. These are useful as they are a simple scenario for people to consider when they are posting content to social media be it about work, for work or in an official or personal capacity.
I too have used such suggestions in the past. Yet I have come to conclude that they are perhaps not as helpful as first they might seem. As I highlighted in my recent blog there are many police officers and staff who have no involvement in social media at all. They don’t get it. These people need to understand how social media works and how it differs from methods the police have traditionally used to communicate information. Can we encourage users to relax with social media if we put scenarios in place that they should consider first? Are we trying to tell them they need to act differently than they would in other circumstances? When faced with stories such as today it becomes even harder to convince officers and staff to get involved.
Let’s consider the use of email. Have you ever sent an email that you thought was perfectly polite and acceptable and had a ‘snot-o-gram’ in reply? Have you read the tone in an email sent to you as aggressive and threatening and ended up in an angry email exchange? It happens all the time. Tone in the electronic written word is very difficult to convey that is not an issue with the spoken word.
Twitter and other social media platforms are no different. It’s very easy to think you are starting a sensible and well mannered conversation only find you end up in what seems like a finger pointing row. This is a perennial problem and I’m not sure if it will ever go away… (emoticons can help).
So how should we be telling officers how to use social media? Well first of all I have to reinforce the comments of DCC Hopkins. You must be in line with the code of ethics. After that officers and staff need to understand that twitter and social media is nothing more than a conversation. A conversation that they could have with someone whilst sat in their lounge taking a statement. A conversation they could have with someone on the street. Everyone in the country is a natural born communicator. We all talk to other people every day. Officers and staff already possess ALL the skills they need in order to be effective on social media.
When I have discussed such simplicity with officers they have told me that they do not understand the boundaries of the information they can share. The traditional police route would be to provide a policy document full of do’s and don’ts. Yet with the best will in the world such a policy could not cover every eventuality. Some basic parameters are useful but officers and staff then need to rely on that age old skill…’common sense’.
Officers are very familiar with standing at an outer cordon of a scene and saying..
‘There has been an incident at an address up the road. I can’t tell you more at the moment’.
What they wouldn’t say is;
‘It’s Mr Jones at 34. He’s been messing with kids and they’ve found a body under the patio’.
Officers know already what they can and can’t discuss in public so they already know what they can and can’t discuss on social media.
Officers deal with members of the public every single day who have been subject to inappropriate use of social media. It stands to reason that within the police service there will be the occasional user who is disgruntled about something in their work or personal life and post content that exposes them to risk. The code of ethics and discipline procedures are there to deal with such persons. There are also users who will simply make genuine mistakes and in such cases the senior command teams and PSD should be there to support them. Have you ever heard of an officer speaking inappropriately to a member of the public on the street and being banned from speaking to the public at all? Of course not.
Of course there is one issue with twitter being seen as a conversation. This is not a one to one chat. When you post content you post it for all to see and with some accounts this could be thousands of people. Everyone has different views and ideas about how things should be. So whilst a tweet or post may seem fairly safe to most there will always be somebody who doesn’t like it. This does not make it wrong. How officers and staff respond to that criticism can be the foundations and building blocks of greater trust between us and our communities. Our senior teams and PSD need to fully understand this. If they don’t then the admonishment of officers simply trying their best will squash out of existence the benefits we are currently reaping.
1. Twitter is a conversation
2. Officers and staff already have all the skills they need
3. There will be mistakes and disagreements but this is normal and perfectly ok so long as we continue to learn from them.
Can we talk? Of course we can… get to it!