Bobbies on the beat hold key to better social media engagement

Dom Burch is the founder and MD of Why Social, a strategic marketing consultancy, and former senior director of marketing innovation and new revenue at Asda. Trained in PR, Dom has spent the last 17 years in a variety of comms roles at Asda, Direct Line and Green Flag including head of PR and head of social.

police officer from the London Met

A study of almost 1.5 million tweets from 48 corporate and 2,450 non-corporate police accounts has revealed that police forces who embrace the personal touch of bobbies on the beat are far better at engaging with communities.

The Knowledge Media Institute analysis of UK Policing Engagement via Social Media was presented earlier this week at the Evidence Based Policing conference.

It described corporate police accounts as 'a one way street'. Noting that although corporate accounts often have higher follower counts than individuals, officers are well connected, and garner far more engagement.

According to trade website Police Oracle, the tweets that attracted the highest level of engagement were typically 'longer, easy to read, avoided jargon, were highly informative and used pictures or videos

Now none of this should come as a massive surprise to those in the know. It's common sense that people prefer to engage with other people.

But it does pose the question if the police are prepared to remove the social media handcuffs from their officers, surely it's time for companies, regardless of their sector to follow suit?

Nearly nine years ago my former employer Asda embarked on an ambitious plan to become more open and transparent.

Under the forward thinking leadership of then CEO Andy Bond (now running Poundland among other things), Asda launched three initiatives aimed at engaging more with its own customers and meeting its critics head on by opening up its operations.

This included crowd sourcing ideas, testing its food products with a panel of 18,000 shoppers, and Aisle Spy, a blog co-authored by staff in key roles throughout the business including buying, finance and sustainability.

As part of its effort web cams were installed in far away factories, on farms and at dairy processors.

It was a concerted effort to show people what actually goes on behind the scenes, with the aim of shining a light on areas usually hidden behind closed doors.

While relatively successful at the time it was the advance in microblogging and the expansion of Twitter in particular that unlocked the true potential for brands to connect with their stakeholders.

Six years ago Asda again led the way and started to train its shopfloor colleagues on how to use social media.

Emma Bearman, who helped run a series of regional workshops for Asda, said the supermarket was a trail blazer.

"What quickly became apparent was a realisation by those in head office that they needed to let go. Typically organisations want to control the message and the messenger, but by doing so they were missing hundreds of opportunities to tell their story on an individual level."

Asda initially encouraged its army of community champions to Tweet on a daily basis, simple updates on what they were doing and who they were meeting.

Emma added: "Asda realised if it trusted its colleagues to speak to millions of customers each day at the checkout or from the deli counter, why wouldn't it trust them to talk about what they do on social media? As a result the guardrails we put in place were fairly light, the guidance straightforward, and they learnt through doing."

Emma has since gone on to work with dozens of other organisations and community groups to help them open up, and tell their story, with a focus on harnessing the people on the ground not those sat behind a desk in head office.

Last year for instance G4S embarked on a similar journey to Asda, recruiting a team of its own colleagues who work as community engagement managers for prisons, and work with prisoners and their families.

Its intention was to open up a part of its operations that most people have no personal experience of, but want to know more about. Namely what goes on over the other side of the walls.

While still early days, those involved have learned how to be themselves while still clearly representing their employer. G4S has also been realistic about the impact on its wider reputation.

Charlotte Eynon Media Manager at G4S said: “Phil Forder is the community engagement officer at HMP Parc - he is an active LGBT campaigner, teacher, author, and painter.

“As such his feed is a colourful mix of content, both personal observations but also interesting insights into what it's like to work for a prison. Interspersed occasionally with a link back to the centre."

Researchers at The Knowledge Media Institute acknowledged the tightrope Twitter users like the police must walk, as misjudging the tone or misreading a situation can result in reputational damage.

But as someone who believes your reputation is forged by your actions not just your words, surely the time has come for all organisations to open up and let their own people tell the story of what they do each day.

You never know it might just keep you out of reputational jail further down the line.

Dom Burch is the MD and founder of Why Social

Read more about the recently introduced digital engagement strategy from the Metropolitan Police in this behind the scenes look from when it began last year.

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