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CC Gavin Stephens Blog: Fewer police accounts – why, what’s lost and what’s gained?

01 Apr 2021

North Yorkshire Police announced earlier this week it was making changes to their social media, including reducing the number of official force social media accounts to make it easier for our communities to find the latest updates from the force and what is happening in their area. 

They are following in the footsteps of a number of forces that have already made the change to refresh and reorganise their online presence.

Some police content creators and their followers are asking why, what’s lost and what’s gained?  I’ll try and explain here.

Policing has led the way, and won many awards, for social media content and engagement, in response to national emergencies, in changing behaviour to prevent crime and in unlocking investigations through greater reach.  It is part of how we police, and now an everyday tactic.  It is also much loved by many police content creators on social, by police supporters and communities.  It is also increasingly part of how people are contacting us for help and advice, from the routine questions to life immediately at risk.

Our talented communications professionals over the years have surveyed consumers of police social media, with the latest survey being done as part of the Digital Public Contact Programme in 2018.  This research informed a new operating model to bring closer links between corporate communications, contact management and local policing.  Prior to the changes in many forces it could be a matter of chance which one of these teams responded to public contact on social media, and at times there was no response at all.  With greater expectations for the professionalism of online services it was time to move from experimental social media use to ensuring it meets community needs.

The 2018 survey was publicised on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram receiving 25k+ responses from followers of police social media accounts representing the 43 force areas across England and Wales.  Two thirds of responses came from Facebook and one third from Twitter - on which over 4000 (and growing) police accounts have been identified.  80% of respondents to the survey on Facebook and Twitter had no connection to policing.

75% of the Facebook respondents wanted to receive updates on incidents, compared to just under 20% wanting insights into police work.  However there is also an internal driver for forces to do more of this content in order to support effective recruitment. 

Users were willing to share updates on incidents and appeals (crime and missing persons), but only just over 10% were willing share content related to insights into policing.  Followers want relevant, recent, curated and professional content. 

Also important, was an expectation that accounts listen and respond.  Not responding eroded trust and confidence, just like any other contact method.

It was a similar story on Twitter with 73% of respondents wanting to receive updates on incidents, with 25% wanting insights into police work.  Tweeters were willing to share updates on incidents and appeals, and disliked repeated prevention messages with no two-way engagement.

Respondents who don't have any connection to policing mostly say they are not interested in conversations about policing – citing that it can present as being self-congratulatory, or internal communication being undertaken in a public forum.  Many of the free text comments from ‘non-police family’ respondents highlighted a dislike for overly personal content, that can run a risk of not representing the service in a good light, or content that was seen as mutual backslapping without a community focus.  One in five respondents believed that content on Twitter was irrelevant to them.

The trend of the survey results outlined a need to focus social media content on a policing purpose, or on professionally building an audience to support that policing purpose.  It also highlighted a need to move away from metrics around volumes of ‘likes’ to the level of engagement accounts generate in meeting the policing purposes.  For example, in identifying offenders, supporting victims, understanding community concerns, taking action to improve feelings of safety and preventing harm.

The operating model was developed by colleagues working in communications, contact management and local policing, and is now supported by a soon to be finalised framework agreement for software providers.  It enables forces to provide a ‘digital 101’ service bringing together the best of our engaging content, while providing the reassurance of 24/7 monitoring, and easy access to seek help.

Providing well organised digital services is a good thing in its own right, and there is a regulatory drive too.  The European Emergency Communication Code needed to be transposed into UK Law by 21 December 2020, which is another reason why some forces have been making changes to their social media accounts since 2018.  The Department for Culture, Media and Sport have taken the lead on this and transposed the EECC into national law by way of statutory instrument.  There is now a slight delay in its implementation due to Ofcom’s decision to provide industry with more time to implement the measures given the need to focus on the Covid-19 response.

The practicalities of this will mean that official accounts will need to be able to take calls for assistance over social media, and contact centres need to be able to triage contact based on threat, harm and risk.  Operationally we know this is necessary, as practitioners around the country have examples of at risk or vulnerable people making contact on social, and we now have a protocol with Facebook around notification of life at risk events into 999. 

Our national Instagram channel saw children and young people reaching out for help in recent weeks following communities taking a stance on violence against women and girls.  Forces that have made the shift have received encouraging feedback from communities and many reports from people reporting offences who maybe have the confidence to type, before gaining the confidence to talk.

So what does this mean for our officers, staff and volunteers that have Twitter accounts in their thousands?  Firstly, they are not being ‘banned’ from using social media in order to serve the public.  The model supports individually named accounts being taken under the wing of the new structure to make sure it is all properly accountable and auditable using the right software.  Forces that have consolidated the number of accounts have seen more engagement not less, and in my own force we now have more contributors to the accounts creating a wider range of interesting content.  

We already knew from the survey that there is no correlation between numbers of accounts and level of engagement.  I believe we need to focus on the audiences we are trying to reach and have a range of accounts to meet those needs to help us keep our communities safe and feeling safe.

There is no requirement to adopt the model, but it has been developed by practitioners across the different disciplines and based on the experiences of forces that made the move early.  Individual forces will make decisions in consultation with communities about what works for them, and the desire is that all content creators are able to use digital communications as an effective part of day to day policing.

* North Yorkshire Police ran a Q&A session on the changes yesterday if you’re interested in how these changes will be implemented there.