How a Local Police Department Uses Facebook to Share With Citizens

Alan Belniakbusiness, content, media0 Comments

The Southborough, Massachusetts Police Department (as seen on http://www.SubjectivelySpeaking.net)

Southborough, Massachusetts Sergeant Ryan Newell Is At The Heart of The Department’s Facebook Presence

When not consuming, using, and researching digital media as my day job, I actually use it in real life, outside of work.  I recently started following the police department’s Facebook page in my town.  It was actually shared by another local news source.  I tracked it for a few months to see what kind of activity was happening.  I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s interesting to see how many of the core digital/social media marketing lessons and effective practices are being employed here with a non-product-related page.

 

With a local police department Facebook page, there’s a real opportunity to connect with readers, citizens, and interested parties alike.  This isn’t pop celebrity news – it’s actually something useful.  I sat down with Sergeant Ryan Newell recently to ask him a few questions (note: there was a strange bit of irony in me interviewing a police officer).  I asked Sgt. Newel how much of the department’s content is mapped out in advance.  “It’s the type of content that can’t be mapped out, because each trend could be taking place at a different day, time, or week,” says Sgt. Newell.  “One week we may have a problem with vandalisms around town, and the next week it could be a rash of car break-ins.”  He further added that he sources content ideas by looking at police department logs from neighboring towns.  “Crime tends to bleed into adjacent towns as it happens, so it makes sense to look at this data.”

 

Real-Time Reactions to Real-Time Content

So, how is content prepared?  Newell explains, “I read the logs, looking to see if a trend is occurring; and then I put it out there on our Facebook page for the public. We feel that it’s important the public is aware of what is going on around town, and possibly give us some assistance by keeping an eye out for criminal activity.”  Looking at this through the lens of a corporate digital and social media strategist perspective, coming up with good content – repeatedly – can be a challenge.  The Southborough Police Department is expert at content re-use: “The content we put on our page is [a reformatted version of] public information.”  This is information that a resident could comb and find on their own.  Instead, the police department offers it as a service and uses a new digital platform to serve it up.  This is a great case in re-using existing content, and finding the right channel and medium.  I personally hope that other local municipalities, like the DPW, take note and consider the same.

 

The Decision of a Facebook Presences vs. a Blog

And that led me to my next question.  Facebook’s reach can’t be underestimated (900+ million users at the time of this writing).  But not everyone you’d like to reach is on Facebook.  Blogs and other digital presences are inexpensive these days.  So I asked why Facebook instead of a website?  “[With Facebook, you can] share massive amounts of information with the public [quickly]. I used to read the online town blogs and began to notice that the public was beginning to complain about a lack of transparency from the department. When the information was not presented (on our part), some commenters began to substitute in their own ideas or thoughts on the topic. It used to be frustrating to read, because things that could have been easily explained were suddenly taken in a totally different direction.”  So Newell and others set out to find a way to give more transparency to what the department does to address some of the questions that local citizens may have.  It’s challenging to convey tone correctly in an online post (read this great example).  I don’t think any particular digital medium will solve that over another (not now, anyway).

 

There’s a sharing component that comes along with news that your local police department posts.  News like break-ins, civic reminders, and the like are bits of information that likely all of us would want to know, but we’re just not privy to the access, or we simply missed it when it was shared via another medium.  How significant was the inherent sharing nature of Facebook factored into the decision to go Facebook vs. blog or website?  Newell smiles and replies: “That is why I approached the Chief about starting up the Facebook page. It is (in my opinion) easier to maintain than a blog, and people will be able to see all of the information we put out in their own Facebook newsfeed. Most people begin their day by checking their Facebook newsfeed. They continue to check their Facebook accounts throughout the day, as well.”

Southborough, Massachusetts Police Department Sergeant Ryan Newell (as seen on http://www.SubjectivelySpeaking.net)

Sergeant Ryan Newell

I can’t help but agree.  Newell continues: “A lot of people are very happy with the easily accessible information that we are now able to provide.  It’s like their digital morning paper.”

 

Each Facebook Share Amplifies the Reach

Anyone close to the digital space knows how important interactions on Facebook are.  Facebook intentionally throttles what content people see and don’t see, so as to not inundate the reader with too much.  Put another way, Facebook imposes its own filter, determined by its EdgeRank algorithm (you can read a bit more here, if you like).  By using Facebook and encouraging people to share the content on the Facebook platform, the chances of more people seeing the content increase rapidly.  “I advised [my co-workers and peers] on our progress, and how fast the page was developing. With every person that “likes” our page, that’s one more person who can share the information with their friends, family, and neighbors. This is what has made our Facebook page such an important Community Policing tool. I hope that we continue to gather more followers, and hopefully we’ll be able to use the system like a “reverse 911” source of information for our residents.”

 

And with that point there, in bold, Sgt. Newell nails it: it’s not so much that you gain an extra reader – it’s that you gain, by virtue of the ‘share’ function on Facebook, an extra person who could potentially share your content with their audience.

 

A Service, not a Burden

I’m fascinated by this, because in my work, I’m, often seeing reports of how corporations or brands or celebrities or B2B, B2C B2something are using Facebook.  This is one of the fewer times I get to look at a municipality using Facebook.  And again, what wins out and works is a decent work ethic and smart sharing.  According to Newell, “I manage and provide the content for the site under my own discretion. If there are areas or topics that I am unsure of, like privacy laws or other issues, I seek the approval of one of my superiors. Updating and scanning the police log takes very little time (usually about half an hour). I choose the log entries that I feel the public would most likely want to hear about, and sometimes offer crime prevention tips along with them.”  In the corporate world, this is akin to not just sharing press releases, but also providing value, a story, an angle… something worth reading.

 

Part of the Daily Routine

Clearly this was something new for Newell and the department.  How does he go about working this into a regular day?  “I usually update the log just after 3 a.m., when things are mostly quiet in town. If a call comes in while I’m working on an update, then I save my work, and handle the call. There is no overtime used. We feel that sharing this information with the public is important to our mission.”

 

A platitude?  Hardly.  Newell offers an anecdote: “When we were going through a rash of house breaks, we received more tips and valuable information than we ever had in the past. Through one informed citizen who was aware of the breaks, we were able to catch a suspect in the act of breaking into a home [in town].  The process is mutually beneficial, because we now have more eyes and ears out there in the public, and the criminals are more likely to be caught due to being witnessed by an informed resident.

 

Mark Zuckerberg would be proud.

image sources: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Southborough-Police-Department/157549017664020 ; Southborough Police Department Media Kit

 

 

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