I was asked to comment on law enforcement agencies’ social media policies for this report by WCCO TV‘s Jennifer Mayerle.
The topic got me thinking about how social media policies have evolved over the years.
The Evolution Of Social Media Policies
Stage One: Denial
The first social media policies were all about laying down the law. And the law the policies outlined was simple: Social media use is prohibited. These policies were written in the first half of the last decade with the rise of MySpace and Facebook.
Many employers adopted the attitude that social media was a time suck and a productivity drain and consequently, should be prohibited. Employee handbooks began to include not so much a full-blown social media policy, so much as a paragraph or clause prohibiting its use on the job.
Many companies went so far as to instruct their IT departments to block access to social networks from their corporate networks. Employees in marketing or public relations roles had to request special access to social sites and justify why they needed that access.
Stage Two: Bargaining
As this chart shows, smartphone adoption exploded from 2005 to the point where practically every employee now brings broadband mobile Internet access with them to work.
You can prohibit employees from visiting social media sites on their work computers but lots of luck enforcing that prohibition on an employee’s own phone.
As employers grappled with this fact, they began to develop stand-alone social media policies. These policies attempted to outline acceptable and appropriate uses of social media sites as a representative of the company, raise potential issues arising from their personal use, and detail the consequences for running afoul of their policies.
Stage Three: Acceptance
This is where we’re at now. Companies have come to understand that they cannot control how their employees use social media so in addition to providing written social media policies, thoughtful companies also offer employees social media training to illustrate appropriate and inappropriate online communication.
Such policies and training cover all employees and are typically general in scope.
Employers have been hiring for positions for which online communications is part of an employee’s responsibilities for years. The skills and judgement to use social media positively and effectively are baked into those job descriptions, which are a de facto social media policy.
[Tweet “Social Media Policies #SocialMedia”]
Social Media Policies Should Be Tailored To Your Organization
While by now most organizations have developed social media policies to inform and guide employee conduct online, some organizations, such as police departments by way of example, have unique circumstances to consider.
Law Enforcement Use Of Social Media
Law enforcement agencies have three unique aspects of online communications they need to consider when developing their social media policies.
1) Criminal Investigations & Social Media
Obviously, social media can be an incredibly useful tool in criminal investigations. In order to take advantage of this tool, officers obviously need access to these channels. One dramatic illustration of the use of social sites for criminal investigations involved a drunk driving case in Lakeland, Florida last October.
A young woman was broadcasting her drunk driving in real-time on Periscope, the live video-streaming app. Viewers called 911 to report the woman and though they knew she was in Lakeland, could not pinpoint a specific location. 10 News in Tampa Bay reported:
LPD doesn’t provide officers with access to Periscope as an authorized software tool and they didn’t have the ability to monitor her actions. One officer took the initiative to download it and open up a personal account in an effort to locate the driver.
“They’re like what’s periscope. Luckily, one of our younger officers was able to figure it out,” Gross added.
Officers were then able to pinpoint landmarks in the area from the streaming video and they located Beall eastbound on Carpenters Way. They said she was driving a 2015 Toyota Corolla, 4-door with a flat left front tire.
Obviously, there should be training on collecting digital evidence and maintaining its integrity.
2) Official Police Department Use Of Social Media
The Minneapolis Police Department’s use of Twitter is a typical example of official agency use of a social media channel.
As the feed below illustrates, Minneapolis PD posts tweets that highlight recent arrests, pay tribute to fallen officers, post links to department policy developments (such as a preliminary draft of body camera policy), and solicit the public’s help for open cases.
3) Police Officer Use Of Social Media
The WCCO TV report highlighted two instances where a specific social media policy may have helped prevent officers from exercising poor judgement but ultimately it comes down to individual wisdom, or lack thereof.
A written policy mostly serves to alert employees to the consequences of inappropriate use of social media. But use by individual police officers presents dynamics not faced by most organizations that actual hands-on training in social media use would more effectively address.
Police Officers Are Quasi-Public Figures
Whether they think of it when they begin their careers, police officers are essentially public figures by virtue of their position of authority and most prominently by their uniforms.
As public figures, they are the subject of public scrutiny by the media. And increasingly, the media are us. We all have smart phones with high-def cameras and a broadband connection to live-stream any police interaction at any given moment.
Given that at this point in time, police officers are under intense public scrutiny, their social media training should not only entail their personal use of Facebook, Twitter and the like but also how to behave when they themselves may become the subject of social media coverage.
While high-profile instances of the misuse of social media by law enforcement officers will dominate news coverage and go viral online, it needn’t be that way. With proper training, officers can learn to avoid controversy while taking advantage of social channels for their relationship- and community-building power.
This is exactly the type of training we include in the media training exercises we routinely conduct with our clients.
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