It’s the duty of law enforcement to inform the public of what their officers are up to and to explain why we do what we do. The story of law enforcement will be told, and it will either be told by you and your police union, unpredictable news reporters, or anti-police agitators. Police unions are perfectly positioned to be a go-to source for important information in their community because your officers are always where the action is. By building a strong social media presence, police unions can have a voice in important conversations regarding policing.

Van Dyke

Illinois FOP President Chris Southwood speaking to reporters. (Screenshot Chicago Sun-Times broadcast)

Fight for the Narrative

Several years ago, I moved to a new patrol assignment on East 6th Street in downtown Austin. Shortly after I arrived, the chaotic normalcy of E 6th Street was broken by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Overnight, I watched the one hundred thousand people who visit downtown Austin every weekend go from being friendly towards officers to negative and even openly hostile. It’s tough to blame the negative public attitude considering how fervently national media outlets stoked the flames.

Unfortunately, law enforcement leaders nationwide largely remained silent after the shooting. The communication void was filled by voices who viewed criticizing police and driving a wedge between law enforcement and the communities they serve as a way to raise their own profiles, ratings, and fortunes.

It seemed strange to me that police leaders couldn’t articulate why a shooting occurred after someone 6’4” and 280 pounds, the size of an NFL lineman, fought with an officer over control of the officer’s firearm. The Officer Down Memorial Page is full of too many line of duty death entries that started the same way.

During the years that followed, I volunteered my time to work on my police union’s social media accounts. The purpose of this article is to share what I and a few other police union media managers have learned so that you can take steps to improve your union’s social media program.

Why Police Unions Need a Strong, Independent Voice

“We should ask our media contacts to tell our side of the story and explain to the public what’s actually happening.”

If you have ever attended a police union meeting, you’ve probably heard someone make that sad plea. Some complex incident occurred, the department said little, the media interpreted available information in the most inaccurate way, and the public was in an uproar. The next day, the police union president took to social media and told a few hundred followers what happened. A few days later, after the damage had set in, the media interviewed the union president. One or two quotes were included in the seven o’clock news broadcast, and then it was time for a commercial break. Next story.

So how can unions break this cycle of dependence on the media?

Joe Gamaldi, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said, “possibly the most important reason to have robust social media platforms is to control the narrative of negative stories and fill the vacuum often left by the department. Whenever one of your members is involved in a high profile incident or viral video, you must jump out in front of it as soon as possible. Not 2 weeks later, not 2 days later, you may be too late if it’s 2 hours later.”

“This requires that you be constantly monitoring social media for potential negative stories,” Gamaldi explained. “The minute one hits, you must spring into action immediately and control narrative telling the officers side. It can make all the difference between being on the offensive versus being on the defensive.”

Here’s how you can lay the groundwork to make that a reality for your union.

Step #1: Assemble a dedicated social media team

Social media account management is time-consuming and requires a team of people. Union leaders have a lot on their plates and managing social media accounts often falls by the wayside.

Police union leaders must delegate social media account management to a communications committee made up of enthusiastic, media-savvy officers. It is a great way to boost participation in union activities by giving members an ownership stake in its operations. Plus, it offers future union leaders an opportunity to improve their communication skills.

Who should join the team? Look for cops who have an upbeat, professional voice on social media and are already leading police-related discussions on their pages. They know what should be said and what shouldn’t.

Which officers have already received training through the department’s public information office and effectively communicate with the media? Who are your department’s photographers and videographers? Who likes to write blog posts or articles? Who actively attends community events and can post stories about them?

You’ll want a team with a diverse set of skills and interests, bring on people with different strengths. Each social media platform (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc) has users with different tastes, interests, and ways of communicating. It takes dedication to become proficient with each platform.

If you only have a small team, choose the platform most relevant to your local community and focus on that. Don’t spread your efforts too thin by trying to keep up with too many accounts. Think of Facebook as a broad place for your writers and videographers, Twitter as a place for your witty news and political hounds, and Instagram as a place for your photographers.

Gamaldi said of Twitter, “I would really focus on the importance of Twitter. Every single reporter in your city will be on Twitter and they are constantly looking for content. I literally create news stories and camera time every week just by tweeting.”

The Warrior Women of APD Calendar is an example of what a well-staffed communications team can do. In order to produce this project, the team of volunteer officers included one professional photographer with his two kids as helpers, two videographers, a drone operator, one passionate project leader, and about half a dozen other influential people who actively worked to make this project happen. It could not have been done by one person, nor the few full-time union staff who are already buried under their daily workload.

social media voice

(Screenshot Austin Police Association video – Facebook)

Step #2: Build your union’s media program

Think of social media platforms as different tools in a toolbox. Because policing can be a complicated story to tell, one tool you’ll need is a website, even a very simple one, where you can write and post position papers and articles. These articles can be fed to and circulated through your Facebook and Twitter accounts.

If you are producing videos, you will want to upload those straight into Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Videos uploaded into Twitter and Facebook automatically play as a user scrolls past them. A static YouTube link in Facebook and Twitter has to be clicked on to view, and very few users actually take the time to click the link to watch the video.

You’ll also want a YouTube account where you can store these videos and embed them directly into your written articles for a well-rounded look. YouTube also makes it easy to create subtitles and a separate .srt subtitle file that can be uploaded into your Facebook videos.

To grow your following, the fastest way I’ve found is to ask your own officers for help. Almost every adult in the United States has a Facebook account, including your cops, who each have an average of about 200-300 contacts. Did you know that you can invite all of your personal contacts to like your union page? On your union’s Facebook page under the community tab is a link that says “Invite your friends to like this page.” Ask your officers to invite their contacts, ALL of their contacts, to follow your union page.

My union quadrupled its Facebook following in two weeks by hosting a raffle for a patrol-ready shotgun, a dozen YETI mugs, and an Xbox that had been donated to us. To enter, a member had to take a screenshot of how many of their friends followed the union Facebook page and text it to the communications team. Participants were given one ticket for every 50 followers, which encouraged members to invite their entire friends list.

Ok, I get it, we’re shy and we don’t want people to know that the guys and gals wearing rip-stop pants, blue line shirts, 5.11 hats, and Oakley shades on their days off are cops. But guess what will happen when you invite people to follow your union page? People will accept the invites – and they won’t judge you.

Why? Because friends and family care about hearing about what their loved ones are up to. People who don’t even know any officers want to know what their department is up to, and the best information comes directly from people in the seats of patrol cars.

Invite your union members, spouses, and members of the public to contribute to the social media effort. Ask for photos and stories from patrol officers. Ask spouses to write articles for your website. Look for interesting bits of history from the retirees.

Cross-post between your media accounts. Share your Twitter and Instagram posts in Facebook. Have your web address on Instagram be a link to your Facebook page. The more you periodically send visitors across your pages, the faster your pages will grow.

Step #3: Look for social media training opportunities

Communication is just like any other skill in that it can be improved with training. There are many resources for improving union members’ ability to articulate their message through social media.

Social media managers should know what a union is, what a union’s purpose is, and how they function within a society full of competing interests. Labor attorney Ron Delord’s Law Enforcement, Police Unions, and the Future is provides a well-rounded education on navigating the challenges police unions face. Will Aitchison’s Labor Relations Information Systems, or LRIS, has excellent books about operating public safety unions. They also have a monthly podcast about police labor issues that I highly recommend.

Another useful resource I’ve found for learning social media account management has been podcasts. The Science of Social Media podcast by Buffer is a weekly talk about how media managers can improve their social media game. For those who want to learn to take better photos, the Improve Photography podcast by Jim Harmer is one of the best. Studio Sherpas, Super Secret Filmcast, and Film Trooper are good podcasts for learning to make better videos.

Finally, training seminars are a good way for union social media managers to meet, network with, relax, and learn from others who are also in this niche field. I’ve attended two from LRIS that were about social media in law enforcement. They provided a great deal of training value and ideas for improvement to my union’s social media team.

Step #4: Partner with others media groups

Building a working relationship with other social media groups is an important way to ensure your message is heard. Communicate and share stories and photos regularly with your department’s public information and recruiting offices, social media managers from other police groups within the department, as well as other local departments and unions, community groups, and so on.

News agencies need stories and your social media pages should be a go-to source for interesting news. Community groups need advocates for their good causes. Help share their stories and be a part of those community conversations. Other agencies and police groups need their stories heard, so to let each other know when you have a good story to share.

For example, the Austin Police Association only had around 10,000 social media followers when it released the Warrior Women of APD calendar. But the trailer video, produced free of charge by the APA’s own volunteer communications committee members, had over one hundred thousand views on the APA’s Facebook page alone, and the story was quickly picked up by national news networks and seen by millions of Americans and even people overseas. How? We reached out to our network of partners and asked for help with sharing a good story.

Step #5: Tailor your message to the public

Gamaldi said, “for every police union, the baseline usage of social media should be to connect with the public and constantly remind them of the positive things you are doing in the community. This includes the heroic actions of your officers day in and day out, as well as the tremendous amount of community outreach we all participate in. The public needs to see that you are a part of the very fabric of the community, not some occupying force. Build a strong foundation of followers so that when you need social media to be a vehicle for controlling the narrative you already have that built.”

Your social media program should be the union’s version of the department’s public information office. Many police unions write social media posts with their own officers’ and their families in mind. But if you want to reach a broader audience and build a larger voice, then your messaging has to be tailored to the community you serve.

Avoid police lingo, ten-codes, and other language that the public doesn’t understand. Keep your messaging positive, even when the topic discussed is controversial. If the topic is complex, then write an article and post it with a detailed explanation. If you only want to notify union members about topics the public won’t care about, like the start time for a membership meetings, send an email.

Conclusion

Your union can lead and shape the conversation about policing, or an opposition group will do it for you, and probably not to your liking. Social media is the tool that connects you to the public without relying on the media to carry your message. By establishing a strong social media presence, your union will be better prepared to not only meet public relations and political challenges but to prevail over them.

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Mike Endres graduated from the University of Texas, served in the Marine Corps, and went to work in finance. Tired of cubicle life and missing the camaraderie of the military, he followed a friend into law enforcement and currently works on patrol. He enjoys writing for his personal blog, Power and Purpose.