For governments, social media is a delicate balancing act. It can be a positive tool used to provide or gather information: The IRS, for example, has a Twitter feed (@RecruitmentIRS) that shares job posts; municipal power companies use the geotagged posts on Facebook and Twitter to determine where the hardest-hit areas are during power outages; and a number of cities and counties have online 311 platforms to compliment their call centers.
But social media isn’t all good for governments. In the September issue of Governing, Paul Taylor addressed one of its many downsides: It makes it easier for citizens to publicly share their opinions (both negative and positive), and it’s just as easy for public officials to delete those comments (but not without controversy and claims of censorship).
Even if governments manage to overcome the freedom of speech hurdle, there’s perhaps an even bigger one: developing an audience. Because in the end, if no one’s listening, there’s little sense for making an effort to maintain a social media presence.
Take law enforcement agencies who are perhaps some of the best suited for not only relevant but also two-way social media communication. They can give updates on road closures and manhunts and take in complaints and tips, yet it’s easy to find examples where departments aren’t necessarily hitting the mark.
The San Diego Police Department has two Twitter pages -- an official one and another that’s meant to maintain a running list of incident reports. The official one (below) tweets straight from a linked Facebook page, which means information is often cut off because of Twitter’s 140 character limit, and the second feed is empty of any meaningful context about the incidents and hasn't been updated in months.
The Brimfield, Ohio, Police Department’s Facebook page, on the other hand, posts relevant, timely updates and encourages two-way communication. A recent post, for example, not only informed followers about a traffic accident but also when a road that was shut down had reopened.
The Brimfield PD has actually been getting a lot of national and international attention lately because for a township of slightly more than 10,000 people, its Facebook page has more than 88,000 “likes.” The only police department with more Facebook likes than that is New York City.
I spoke to Brimfield’s police chief, David Oliver, to find out how he built such a large audience, how he keeps his information relevant to readers, how he’s developed a brand for his department, and what being an Internet celebrity has done for his community of 10,000. His edited responses appear below.
What was out there in terms of police departments when you first decided to join Facebook?
We started our page toward the end of 2010, and at that time there were some agencies that I saw that had Facebook pages. Some of the issues that I had with those pages is that they were an operating room -- they were kind of sterile. The messages were “this is the person we’re looking for; he robbed a store … wear your seatbelts … have a good day.” I wanted to do something different. I like to laugh by nature.
After hearing everyone talk about Facebook, I thought it would be a positive way to get the message out -- if we could attract the people. We’re a community of 10,500, so I thought that if we had 500 people in Brimfield paying attention, the word would spread and it would be a success. Along with that, I wanted these people to see what we saw as best as I could paint the picture, hear what we heard, let them have a glimpse inside police work. It just kind of took off.
You have more than 88,000 likes on your page. What were you expecting when you first started?
In the summer of last year, we were around 5,000 likes. I said “We’re around 5,000. This is huge, this is where we will plateau.”
How did you build your audience?
The message I’ve always said is if you’re going to do it, do it. You have to be consistent -- and we are. Between 6:30 and 7 a.m., we have a good morning message with weather and traffic and we poke fun at people with birthdays. People rely on it. If I miss it, you see the messages -- “Where’s the chief today? Can’t go on without the message.” It’s been comical on that end.
But the expectation of our followers has built quite a relationship. Our followers know that good news or bad news, we’re going to tell you the truth. We have some fun, but we also tell some sad stories along the way. You’ll always know that we’re trying to do what’s right.
Where is your audience from?
About 21,000 of our likes are from the immediate areas. We also have likes all around the world in places like Canada, Australia, France, New Zealand, Japan, Costa Rica, South Africa and Malaysia. Outside of the U.S., the number one country where our followers come from is Australia. It’s odd, but I’m glad they’re here because when we’ve done our community programs, we’ve received donations from Australia.
How do you use the page to the benefit of the community (outside of providing information on traffic, suspects, etc.)?
We do a lot of community programs here, like senior check where we have 650 seniors to check up on once a month and shop with a cop. I posted on the Facebook page that I wanted to take at least 80 kids and get them school clothes. I grew up poor, so that hits home with me. We ended up with donations from 15 states and two countries. We had someone in Florida send us a $2,000 check.
Our Facebook page has put Brimfield on the map. For example, our housing starts are up 30 percent over last year. A lot of people comment on the page that they don’t live here but want to or are moving here. It’s been very positive for the community.
We also recently had our annual Brimfest, and I invited all of the veterans within earshot to participate in a "welcome home" parade and invited all of our Facebook friends to attend as well. We had a great turnout and it was one of the most profitable for the Chamber of Commerce. We had people drive here from Florida; we had someone fly in from Seattle. We’re going to do it again next year, and we’re going to make it bigger and better.
But all of this has helped the community understand that we’re a team. If we’re going to reduce crime, the people have to be willing participants. People have become very protective of the department, and that’s huge for us. Some people use the private message function to leave a tip or to tell us about a nuisance in their neighborhood. We wanted to have any means of communication available so our department is the most functional operation it can be. I think the paradigm is shifting a little bit toward using social media as an outreach tool rather than just picking up the phone to call the police department.
What does the department’s Internet celebrity do for morale?
Early on, we had people on our page who don’t like the police and would post negative things like that we were Nazis. That doesn’t happen too much anymore, but we put up officers’ profiles and the goings-on of the department so people can see what our officers do on any given day. By putting their profiles up there, they become real people. It’s not the guy in the rearview mirror; now you can see who they are and where they’re from.
A lot of people don’t brand government agencies. They just say, “We are the police.” I wanted to do something different here. Policing is what we do, but there’s a huge other side to it. We’ve been donating or helping to raise thousands of dollars per year for our local food cupboard for example. If you’d never heard about that, you’d assume we’re the people who arrest a thousand people per year and that’s it.
The page has definitely been a morale booster. It’s kind of fun for them because the page made national news, and the funny thing now is that when officers go somewhere in town, they’ll hear positive stuff from the community.
Is there anything you try to avoid on the page?
I only want to talk about the facts. I normally don’t respond to critics unless their facts are wrong. If you fight every fight, by the time you actually need to fight something, you have no energy left. There’s someone who will be critical of even the best thing you do on your best day and the best performance you give, so you just have to let that roll off your back and keep moving forward.
I also don’t put names and pictures up of suspects or criminals, and I do that for the kids because you can’t pick your parents. I’ve run across kids who are great, but their parents can’t get out of their own way.
Some government pages turn users off by giving too much irrelevant information. How do you make sure what you’re posting is useful?
I think like a citizen instead of like a police chief. After almost 20 years on this job, one of the things I see are public officials who tend to think from the perspective of their responsibilities instead of thinking about Mrs. Jones on Breyerwood Lane who wants to know why she’s hearing sirens. If a huge crash delays traffic, I can post what to use as a detour.
We’re becoming an information-now society. People don’t want to wait until the 6 p.m. news and chances are it won’t be there anyway. When you tell people what happened or what’s going on, it gives them a sense that everything is okay.
You’re from a small community. Can this be replicated in a larger city?
This is Anytown, USA. You could do this in Cleveland or L.A. You just need to have the backing of your CEO.
What advice would you offer other government agencies or police departments in setting up social media pages?
It’s not a question of whether you should anymore. You can just post the facts or you could post some humorous stories, but you have to do it. I’ll also put general information out there like, “Today we handled a child sexual assault. The guy who did it should be put in prison for the rest of his life.” If it’s my opinion, I’ll make it clear. You have to look at it like this: Our customer base is using social media, so we have to serve them. That’s where we have to be if we’re going to develop a dialogue with them. You have to do it. You can’t afford to be without it.
This article originally appeared on GOVERNING.com.