No matter your social media drug of choice, you’ve likely seen posts from cops pop up in your feed.
This is Maisie practising her hero pose. 12/10 would hire.
They can do very well, picking up thousands of likes and plenty of engagement. If they’re good enough they can get reposted to places like Reddit, and some posts go viral and end up on the news. But here’s the real question: is this social media strategy working?
First, let’s talk about what the strategy is. Police department on social media are trying to build trust. In the past, police PR mainly consisted of making statements on crimes and issuing public service announcements. This still happens and it’s expanded to social media.
Quand tes amis te disent que tu peux tout déménager avec ta voiture en un seul voyage et que tu commences à manquer de…
However, the primary aim of police social media is to build trust with their communities. In fact, internal documents from big organisations like the NYPD show that a lot goes into crafting police social media.
— NYPD 19th Precinct (@NYPD19Pct) July 17, 2019
Of course, the whole reason police departments are building trust is to fight negative perceptions people have of the police. In fact, we’ve previously covered how this backfired for the NYPD with the hashtag #mynypd.
— Dan (@Danbobjoe) April 22, 2014
We aren’t here to talk about whether or not negative perceptions of police are justified. For our purposes, it’s enough to say that those negative perceptions exist and the police are trying to use social media to overcome them.
How Much Can a Joke Help?
Last week, we rounded up the best of the TSA’s Instagram feed. Are many of those images funny? Absolutely.
But let’s imagine that you read that post after standing in a security line-up at O’Hare where a barely coherent TSA worker shouted that that stick deodorant counts as a liquid and you’d have to throw it away. Does that funny TSA Instagram feed improve your perception of the TSA?
No, of course not. A funny, well-curated social media can influence perceptions, but not to the extent that it overcomes a real, lived experience.
Police run into the same problem. They can post as many jokes about drunk drivers getting a free ride to jail as they want, when police officers make the news for posting disturbing things to social media, that’s the story people focus on.
On top of that, social media can go spectacularly awry. For example, one police social media account posted Jack Nicolson’s speech from A Few Good Men, which is pretty dumb given that his character was on trial for an unlawful death and subsequent cover-up. And of course, all this happened in the wake of Eric Garner’s death.
It’s also worth noting that the jokes and memes themselves can make the police appear suspect. Some commenters look at the social media strategy itself and see evidence of something unsavoury or untoward.
What Can Be Done?
This isn’t to say that it’s a bad idea for police departments to be on social media. Social media is an important mouthpiece and it can’t be ignored. This is to say, however, that social media strategies have limits. If you’re a business using social media to build trust, no amount of quality social media content can overcome negative customer experience.
One final thought: police content marketing doesn’t have to be limited to social media. We want trading cards, RCMP!