Do you wish you had a way to shape the narrative about incidents involving your officers? Are you frustrated when your police union’s effort to correct a narrative fails to make an impact? Feel like giving up when a reporter compresses your 10-minute interview into a 10-second sound bite?
If you have been tasked with running your union’s social media page, you may have no idea where to begin or what strategies to pursue.
I’ll help you fix that in this series of articles where I share with you the lessons I learned from running a police union social media program. These articles give you an easy-to-follow roadmap to build a powerful voice on social media. Let’s face it — unless you can buy a news agency, social media is the best way to get your union’s message to the public.
To start, let’s get your mind right about why unions must master social media.
It’s About Influence
The mission of your union is to improve the lives of your officers. The purpose of your police union’s social media is to help you achieve that mission by convincing the public you serve and the politicians you work for to understand your needs and support your ideas.
The public and politicians will not provide your officers the resources your officers need without you convincing them to. Social media is a useful tool in your toolbox to accomplish this mission. Give your social media presence the attention it deserves, and it can become a mighty sledgehammer when you need it to be.
The long-term policy of your social media program should be to act as a sword and shield for your officers (and department as well) by informing the public about law enforcement topics, correcting and controlling narratives, and building and maintaining trust from your community.
The advantage you have with social media as a police union is permanence. Your union does not have to rebuild a following every few years the way the revolving door of new activists and politicians do.
Unions are smart not to pick a fight with a newspaper that buys ink by the barrel. Activists and politicians should be smart enough to avoid fights against a union that can capture and dictate the narrative through immediate, engaging and credible dialogue with the union’s overwhelming following of community members.
So how can you accomplish this policy goal?
The strategies outlined below will help you achieve your social media policy goals.
Every post should succinctly accomplish as many of the below strategies as possible:
- Capture the reader’s attention
- Set the narrative
- Attract new followers
- Explain what your officers are doing and why
- Give politicians completed plans to fix problems
- Recognize and reward good behavior
- Tell the public how they can help your officers
- Present statistical data
The attacks from activists and politicians will come. If you follow the above policy and strategies, you will build a sufficient following to take control of the narrative, defuse unwarranted criticism, redirect credit or blame where it needs to go and maintain public support.
I’ll dive deeper into the strategies and tactics of writing social media posts in Part 2 of this series, “Eight Strategies to Master Police Union Social Media.” But first, you need to understand who your target audience is.
Your Officers Are Not the Target Audience
Your target audience is your community, not your fellow officers. Write every post to your next-door neighbor, the one who always asks how your job is going.
You have many ways to communicate union business with your officers, but few to communicate directly with the public. If you post about ol’ Jimmy’s retirement party or what flavor of beans Officer Dale is serving at the next membership meeting, you will watch your audience unfollow your pages.
If what you want to say is not something you would enthusiastically tell your neighbor about, don’t use your social media page to post it. If you must post it, revise or approach the topic from a new angle until you find a compelling way to say it.
Your social media goal should be for your community to want to hear your union’s perspective on issues that affect them. Inform your followers about:
- Something they should know about (reasons for using force, crime rates)
- Things they don’t understand, yet are interested in (arrest authorities, investigative processes)
- Why the information is important (we can recover your stolen work truck if we have license plate readers)
After all, they hired you to be a cop and keep them safe. This is your chance to tell them what you are doing and to justify why your officers need resources and support.
Use email, a separate private page or some other means to talk with your members about union business, not your public social media pages.
Delegate Social Media to a Dedicated Team
Here’s a critical question: Who should run your union’s social media pages? You may think, “Well, the president, of course” or “Someone from the executive team.”
Sure, that’s reasonable. The membership elected them, so they should write the social media posts, right?
“No? What do you mean no? It’s easy; just throw whatever you want to say in a post and hit send. Done!”
Why do great wedding photographers charge thousands of dollars and take weeks to get photos back to their clients? Why do the most popular politicians hire speechwriters? Why does your police chief or sheriff not personally run your department’s social media account?
Take a look at the most popular and engaging social media pages you follow. All of the pages’ content producers, hosts and admins spend every second of their day thinking of, planning for and creating the next piece of content. Writing, videography, photography and storytelling are forms of art that take commitment and time to master.
Getting elected does not bestow any of those skills upon you. Worse, the current crop of activists and politicians have already spent years honing their messaging skills. If you get elected to a union position, you are immediately expected to compete in the gladiators’ arena of public opinion against seasoned communicators.
If you want anyone to hear what your union has to say, you need content producers who can spend the daily time it takes to compete for attention, take control of narratives and outmaneuver opponents. Union executives (should) have more important things to do.
The good news is that your members include professional photographers, former journalists, creative bloggers, aspiring union leaders and enthusiastic advocates for law enforcement. Better yet, you have a platform for them to tell the public about the amazing stories they come across.
So how do you harness this talent and put it to work?
Create a communications committee and put them on it. Pick one person as the committee chair and give that person admin privileges for the social media pages. The chair’s responsibilities are to solicit, collect, edit and prepare drafts of new posts.
The committee members’ primary responsibility is content production. All an executive should have to do is glance over, approve or modify the chair’s drafted post or message and get back to their work.
The second responsibility I recommend for committee members is talking with and building a network of contacts in the media. But shouldn’t executives be the ones talking with reporters, you may ask? Yes, for important things like a critical use of force, executives should do the talking.
But the basic, easy, daily questions reporters need answered for their stories should be done by communications committee members.
Why is this important? Letting communications committee members be reporters’ first point of contact speeds up members’ learning curve, teaches them how corporate media works and how to influence the way news stories are written and told, and sharpens their own ability to communicate.
The goal is for your union to have many media-savvy people behind the scenes working to shape public opinion the same way your local activists do. One or two executives cannot carry the whole public relations burden alone.
Fix Your Account
Want to gain thousands of dedicated followers who will comment on and share your posts? That’s easy — ask your officers to invite their friends and family to follow your social media pages.
I’ll tell you how to do it in a bit, but first you need to prepare your account.
Before you invite anyone to follow your account, make sure it looks like something worth following, especially before you ask your members to invite their family and friends to follow your union account.
No one will follow a page whose last two posts were about ol’ Jimmy’s war stories and “Shout-out to Officer Dale for the baked bean recipe. Delicious!”
Your officers need to look at your page and say, “That’s the kind of page I’d be proud to show my family and friends.” Your officers won’t invite their friends or family to follow the page if your account looks lame. Even if they did, no one would accept the invite.
Here are the things you need to do before you invite people to follow your page.
Three sharp posts: Don’t ask people to follow your page until you have at least three or more interesting posts already up for the people you invite to see.
Why this matters is that people invited to follow the page will judge your most recent posts. These posts cannot be, “Please return Officer Dale’s bean crockpot if you borrowed it from the union hall” or “Please donate to ol’ Jimmy’s retirement gardening fund.”
Profile photo: Do you ever see a social media account with such a cool profile photo that you follow them before you even read their posts? Your cover photo and profile pictures need to be that compelling.
Every person who looks at your page will either say “These guys are lame” or “This is amazing. I’m following them.”
Get a skilled photographer with a professional camera or graphic designer to create these images for you. Do not whiff at this and ask ol’ Jimmy to take these pictures with his old flip phone. The results will not be the same, and these are images that people will see as soon as they look at your page.
An easy idea for a cover photo is to place a few officers midway between the photographer and an iconic mural in your community. Something like “Welcome to Smithville.”
For a round profile picture, an easy one is to superimpose your union’s logo over your state’s flag. Use the American flag if your logo and state flag doesn’t look right. A gold badge over the stars and stripes with a touch of added contrast is hard to beat.
If you don’t have a Photoshop subscription handy, Photoleap by Lightricks is a free app that lets you do this.
Description: Fill out your page description with something compelling. Remember, your audience is the public, not your officers.
- Boring: “The Smithville Police Union Facebook page keeps our members informed.”
- Better: “We advocate for the brave men and women of Smithville P.D. This SPU page gives you unfiltered information about issues affecting public safety in Smithville, a front-row seat to what our officers see in your neighborhood and analysis of topics affecting law enforcement.”
If you need ideas, go to the About page on an edgy website to get an idea of what your union’s About section could look like.
Contact details/info: Fill out every which way someone can contact your union. This projects the strength and professionalism of an active union. Contrast that with a page with no information or merely a generic email listed. It looks weak and says this is a union politicians and activists could walk all over without consequence.
Get Your Base on Board
Ever notice that when a prominent person or account drops a comment under someone else’s social media post, their followers join the fray? The result is they typically overwhelm the comment section in support of the prominent person’s or account’s position.
Having a solid base of support will give you a supportive audience when you want to talk about a contentious issue.
Each of your officers has dozens or hundreds of family and friends. Each of those people are interested in what’s going on in their officer’s department. Those same people are the people most likely to comment, interact with, proudly share, and respond to posts and calls to action you share on social media.
Your officers’ friends and family will always be the best supporters you have, and you need to get them on board. Here’s how you do it.
Motivate your members to invite their family and friends: The less successful way I tried was simply asking them to invite their friends and family out of their devotion to the union cause. Maybe one or two people did this, and one may have been my spouse.
The far more successful way to get your members to invite their family and friends is to hold a raffle for a red-dot optic, firearm or other great prize. Give people one entry ticket earned for every 50 friends or family members who followed the union page. The rules are simple: Officers have to invite their entire friend list to follow a page, and then screenshot or give you a count of how many of their friends and family responded to the request and now follow the page, and for every 50, they get a ticket in the raffle.
I did this by emailing the rules to the membership and asking them to text me their follow count. I logged the participants in Excel as my phone blew up with responses and later filled a bucket with raffle tickets.
Go beyond your membership: Ask people who want to support your union to invite their friends to follow the page.
I had several times where a person with thousands of contacts simply handed me their phone and said, “Sure, invite them all.” Handling this tedious task is another reason why executives delegating social media to a committee is a good idea.
Repeat: Do these “social media drives” at least annually to gain followers as new officers come into your union. There are plenty of ways to get your officers to bring you an audience. Figure out creative ways that work for you.
Words either grab attention and leave an impression or they fall flat and fail to make an impact. In the next article of this series, “Eight Strategies to Master Police Union Social Media,” I’ll help you shape the narrative with effective strategies and tactics for writing posts.
Part 2 of this article will be featured in an upcoming issue of PORAC Law Enforcement News.
About the Author
Mike Endres works as a patrol sergeant in a large city. In 2017, Endres had no experience administering an organization’s page, but enjoyed writing and photography and wanted to tell the story of law enforcement. Wanting to help build the union’s social media presence, he offered to help the admin. Endres learned the ropes by writing posts and taking photographs for the union. After a few years of bird-dogging stories and writing content, he earned the role of communications committee chair. Today, Endres enjoys writing for his blog Power and Purpose.