Policing by content
08 Feb 2017
By the time the call came into the Staffordshire Police control room about a 32-year-old woman with mental health issues who had gone missing while suicidal, it was the early hours of the Saturday morning.
With no access to traditional media, the on-call communications officer, David Bailey, had to rely on social media.
At 12.45am, just 40 minutes after the original call, an appeal was posted on the Staffordshire Police Facebook page, including a photograph of the woman and details of the general area – one of the most remote in the county – where she had last been seen.
At 2am, a barmaid who had just finished her shift in a rural pub logged into her personal Facebook page and saw the Staffordshire Police post, due to having “liked” the page some 18 months earlier in connection with an unrelated matter. The woman then posted a comment in response to the appeal stating that she had served the woman in her pub earlier that evening.
“She didn’t call 101, she didn’t dial 999, instead she chose to reply to the Facebook post,” explained Mr Bailey, senior communications manager at Staffordshire Police. “We then had to reply publicly to ask her to ring in because that was the only contact with her that we had.”
The woman made the call and then, ten minutes later, added a second post expressing her amazement at the fact that the control room had been expecting her. A patrol car was promptly sent to the pub, arriving 15 minutes after the sighting had been reported. Working back from the pub towards the missing woman’s home address, she was found unconscious on the side of the road having taken an overdose. The time was 2.45am and the appeal was then officially closed at 3am.
Between 12.45am and 3am the appeal had reached 7,200 people, with 330 either sharing the post or commenting on it.
“There is an audience there that you can reach that can provide intelligence and information at a time you would never believe,” said Mr Bailey.
Despite its ubiquity, social media is still relatively new – Twitter has only been around for a little over a decade and Facebook is just two years older. As a result, some forces are still struggling to find the best way to make use of it.
For many forces, the turning point for social media engagement was the aftermath of the disturbances that took place across the country during the summer of 2011 following the shooting of Mark Duggan in London. Tens of thousands of protestors used social media to share their concerns and organise events. The online world proved to be almost as much a battleground as the inner city streets.
“There were forces that had some form of social media engagement strategy in place before that August and some that did not,” said Mr Bailey. “Those that did and were building a social media platform had far more success.”
At the time, Staffordshire Police had 3,000 followers of its Facebook page – the largest following of any UK force on the platform. In the six days following the disturbances, that number trebled and has now reached more than 100,000. Since then, Staffordshire Police has been at the forefront of using social media as an increasingly professional engagement platform.
Connecting with the public through social media can be an effective way of managing the reputation of a force and responding to gossip and rumours getting out of control. Mr Bailey recalls a time when Staffordshire Police was being “brutally hounded” on Facebook and Twitter for having deployed a full firearms team to Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, to deal with what turned out to be a group of teenagers with BB guns.
“The family of the youths went on Facebook and were accusing us of overreacting. The public quickly got behind them, asking why we were pointing real guns and deploying dogs and helicopters against kids who were playing. The only reason we knew we were being criticised was because we were active on social media and looking at what comments were being made.
“The criticism continued until we put out images of what we had been dealing with [showing the youths pointing handguns at one another in the town centre], accompanied by a calm video explaining our actions.
“We had tried responding to some of the comments but the images are what brought an end to it. Once the still images were out there, the conversation switched completely. People were saying “well done Staffordshire Police. Thanks for explaining it and thanks for responding the way you did. We didn’t understand before”. And the family suddenly deleted all of its comments.
“It was a very easy way of putting our point of view across and explaining what we were doing and why. It could not have been done with text alone,” explained Mr Bailey.
“A video is ten times better than a photograph and a photograph is ten times better than just using words on a social media post. If you are involved in an investigation and you want to launch an effective appeal, talk to your communications team about the images and video and other assets you have got as that will generate more interest. If you combine that with a little bit of targeting, it can be very easy to reach people who fit the profile you are going after.”
Although Mr Bailey admits there are risks in using social media, such as damage to reputation, the possibility of compromising an operation and other complaints, he believes that the benefits of social media engagement far outweigh the risks.
“You can miss out on the community voice, opportunities for intelligence, opportunities for engagement and reassurance. Social media also lets the police tell stories on their terms, as opposed to how the media wants to interpret them. It provides a chance to manage demand for services and to get feedback on activities,” he explained.
“If you don’t use it the reputational issues will still be there. Social media conversations about the issues happening in your community will be happening whether you’re involved in them or not.
“Failing to use social media means you have no influence over what is going on or what is being said. It lets down community expectations, especially with so many people now using social media as their main source of news. And although there will be times when things go wrong, that’s not going to be too much of a problem if you have a strategy to deal with it.”
Analysis of the users of the Staffordshire Police Facebook pages shows they are mostly female and aged between 25 and 44.
“These are people who have lots of contacts within the community and could help us out with lots of information,” explained Mr Bailey. “They are also an audience that need lots of reassurance and the people we probably have least contact with on a day to day basis.”
Being able to identify and target this kind of audience is one of the greatest strengths of Facebook. It is possible to make posts visible only to certain audiences, selecting them by geographic location, age, gender, interests or any combination of other factors.
“If you are specifically wanting to target an audience and get a message across or trigger a conversation, you can use targeting on Facebook. There is no charge for doing so and it allows you to proactively reach audiences you did not realise you had access to,” said Mr Bailey.
“If you have a particular crime issue in a specific town, putting content out there which is relevant to the target audience will increase the level of engagement. And it is engagement that gets you the reach. Just putting something on Facebook doesn’t mean that everyone who follows your page is going to see it. Also, you have to generate buzz around something if you want to get people to share it.”
Mr Bailey is a strong advocate of linking intelligence and communications, as there can be benefits for both.
“Intelligence can be used to plan social media campaigns. For example, hate crime is a vastly underreported issue and we need more victims to come forward, so we used paid-for advertising on Facebook to target a specific audience,” he said.
By targeting users who had, at some point in the past, written posts that included key phrases such as “learning disabilities”, “Asperger’s” and “Downs syndrome”, Staffordshire Police was able to reach 11,000 locals. Advertisements with information about where to report hate crimes would then appear on their home pages every time they logged onto Facebook. As payment is made only when someone clicks on the link and costs just a few pence each time, this proved to be a highly cost-effective way of generating additional intelligence in this area.
A similar advert was targeted at users who had ‘liked’ the British National Party page, warning them of the penalties of getting involved in hate crime. These same advertisements were also seen by those opposed to the BNP, providing proof that the police were being proactive when it came to targeting hate crime.
With the right keywords and phrases essential to the success of this type of campaign, the Staffordshire Police team ensured it conducted the necessary research first. To reach members of the transgender community, for example, a meeting was arranged to discuss the ‘terms’ that were being used in respect of the crimes they were affected by to encourage victims to get in touch.
Information can also flow in the other direction, although few forces are taking advantage of this. Following the arrest of a local organised crime figure, the
family of the accused logged onto the force Facebook page and began posting profanities. A filter meant that none of their comments were actually posted in public, but the information about who was attempting to make the posts was still being retained.
“They didn’t’ realise they were showing us all of their family connections. Did my communications team link up with the intel team to tell them? Probably not, but these are the sort of opportunities we should be thinking about.”
Surveys are being conducted with those who engage with the police on social media to find out more about the kind of information they are looking for. Although the data is still being analysed, it is evident that the public is most interested in updates about incidents that are happening at that very moment, followed by missing person appeals and appeals for other crimes. Insights into police work, crime prevention advice and court case results are far less popular.
The decline in sales of local newspapers is blamed chiefly on the increasing number of people using social media as their main source of news.
Some forces have had success with Snapchat, Periscope or Instagram. But despite predictions during the past few years that the platform was in decline, Facebook remains the gold standard – at least as far as police engagement with the community is concerned.
“When we put similar messages on Facebook and Twitter, we get only one tenth of the level of response from Twitter,” explains Mr Bailey. “There are around 5,000 police Twitter accounts in the UK and hundreds of thousands of people follow them, but we gain very little out of them.
Although Twitter is often cited as the premier source of breaking news, it struggles to fulfil this role at a local, lower level. The vast number of tweets being generated at any one time makes it impossible for the average user to follow it all.
“There are a number of people who have signed up to police Twitter feeds and think they are getting updates, but they are not. You can’t read every tweet from every follower, so how does a force get its message across and make it relevant? That is the challenge. We have to decide what we are trying to achieve from social media when we put a post out there. Have we got an objective in mind? We have to know what success looks like.”
Staffordshire Police is increasingly pursuing a localised approach across all social media, creating accounts that serve a specific geographic area and that target a particular audience.
“Our force website is itself a social media platform. We encourage comments, we are getting people to engage there and we are introducing channels such as online incident reporting,” said Mr Bailey.
The ultimate aim is to provide content that is directly relevant to this audience. As such accounts are intended to be in service for the long term, having them linked to individual officers is generally seen as a bad idea.
“If you have a local commander and they have a Twitter account, in three years’ time they might be doing a completely different job. What do you do with that audience? You have to have a strategy in place.”
One issue that Mr Bailey highlights is the general lack of social media engagement among police officers themselves.
“When you go into a room full of police officers and police staff, there will be a lot less of them using social media than among other groups – around ten or 15 per cent,” said Mr Bailey. “There will also be a higher proportion than among the normal public of people who have set up Twitter accounts but never sent a tweet. Part of this is because we see some of the issues with social media that others do not, and that a lot of officers have been told to avoid social media to prevent them divulging personal information online.”
Although this means there is a lack of understanding of the best way to use social media within many police forces, a similar lack of understanding exists among the public in general.
“Many people don’t understand the platforms they are using. Very few people actually know what the hashtag does or why you would use it. When it comes to Facebook settings, most people haven’t got a clue what they are sharing and who with,” said Mr Bailey.
“There have been times that we have put crime prevention advice on our Facebook page telling people not to announce when they are going on holiday. We then see comments coming back with someone posting that they are going on holiday the following week, thinking they are just sharing that information with their friends and not posting it onto a public forum.”
With open source information increasingly playing a frontline role in investigations, a smooth integration of all aspects of social media and police work is essential if a force is to work most efficiently.
“At the moment, we’re working social media in lots of little silos, all using the same sort of channels and platforms but for very different reasons,” said Mr Bailey.
“We’re all using the same datasets and a lot of time we’re using similar systems. But at the end of the day the reason we are here is to help the public, and we need to be more joined up in the way we do that.
“If we can get the public to connect to their local force when they need something and to turn to their local force when they want information, that is exactly what we want. We don’t want them going to the local paper or the local radio station to get their spin on it. I want them to come to us to get the information.
“We need to be the credible, trusted voice. If there is a rumour about a child being kidnapped and it starts spreading like wildfire, we need to be that voice that says it is not true, calm down, this is what really happened. To achieve that, we need to have high standards of impartiality and integrity, the things that [Lord Justice] Leveson talked about in his report.”
Sharing good news and positive stories that have little to do with actual law enforcement can help build an audience. The more capacity a force can build into its Facebook page, the greater the reach will be when there is something operational to be achieved and ultimately, this is where social media engagement has the potential to be most valuable.
“There is a lot more to Facebook than many forces perhaps understand,” said Mr Bailey.
“Unless you are aware of what force communications teams can do for you, you will not make the most of it. If you need information from a specific town or a specific age profile and you find the right content to put out there to get the conversation moving forward, then your social media channel is the best way of getting that information.”
When social media works
• Following a vicious street robbery in Newcastle-under-Lyme that left a victim with horrific injuries, Staffordshire Police was keen to have the case featured on Crimewatch. “We were told we would have to wait four weeks,” said senior communications manger David Bailey. “So we decided to create our own ‘Crimewatch’ appeal.” Filmed in the same style as the BBC programme, the video featured all the salient details and included an appeal from the victim. It was posted on the force Facebook page. “We used paid advertising to reach the target audience, based on the intelligence coming in about where we thought the offenders were from. That meant we were able to reach out and target the people who may have had the information we needed to investigate the crime,” said Mr Bailey. The film reached just under half a million people in just a few days. The link was clicked 55,000 times and there were 3,680 comments posted, all of which provided actionable intelligence for what remains an ongoing investigation. As a result of the additional publicity, Crimewatch ran an appeal on the case a month later.
• When a man escaped from a Staffordshire prison, David Bailey used social media to ensure details reached people best placed to stop him leaving the country. “Within an hour his picture was appearing on Facebook profiles of people living near Heathrow, Dover, Felixstowe and other major ports and airports. It was paid for advertising but we did not need to contact each force and ask them to share the information – it was a very simple and quick way of getting the information out there.”