Editor’s note: The first article in this series was published in the October issue of PORAC Law Enforcement News.
Is your police union shaping the news cycle? Is your police union’s social media committee consistently producing content? Is your community reading, sharing and commenting on your posts?
Consider this: You read posts all the time about random topics, and you still remember them days later. You even see media stories following up on those random posts and hear your co-workers talking about them the next day. You probably even noticed that those random posts changed the way you and the people around you thought about that topic.
Odds are, because the photo or video, structure and delivery of the post were compelling, reeling in your attention and holding it. The post probably gave you enough information to change your perspective on whatever the topic was.
So how can your police union’s posts have this high level of influence in your community?
In my previous article, “Building an Effective Police Union Social Media Program,” I discussed how to lay the groundwork for a narrative-shaping social media program. Welcome to Part 2 in the series, which will hand you, the hardworking admins behind police union social media accounts, the templates, strategies and tactics for writing attention-grabbing content. I’ll explain to you why every post should succinctly accomplish as many of the following 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
Capture the Reader’s Attention
The first and most important thing any post must do is catch the reader’s attention. Unread messages, no matter how important, carry no influence and waste the time you spent writing them. Worse, when your members who produce your union’s social media content take time to write a piece of content but see minimal reaction to their story, it discourages them from continuing to write content.
The good news is that there’s nothing wrong with the topic they are discussing, but rather how it’s delivered.
Understand that you are in a competition for eyeballs against the internet’s best content creators. How can you get your followers to skip reading their other favorite pages and instead read, interact with and remember your posts?
Here is a post format I recommend to get your content producers’ posts to stand out:
- One big thing: Your entire post should tell the reader one thing they should know and remember. You can’t influence people if your reader is overwhelmed with multiple messages and doesn’t understand the takeaway. Newsletters are meant for email, not a social media post.
- Dessert first: The most interesting part of your message must be in the first sentence. Notice how all the social media apps hide text after the first few lines? The entire message you want the reader to know must fit before the “read more” button. If your photo and one big thing are interesting enough, they’ll read the rest. If not, the best content you’ve ever written will be hidden behind “read more” and will never be seen.
- Boring: “Even though they are somewhat expensive, we hope that the council will see the wisdom of our license plate reader proposal, which is outlined below. Read more…”
- Better: “License plate readers find missing children, solve murders and locate your stolen car. Want less crime? Read more…”
- Why it matters: After grabbing attention, explain why your post matters to the community.
- Wrong audience: “LPRs save our officers from having to manually type in license plates, automatically tell our officers about a stolen car nearby and make our jobs easier. We hope council will approve funding for these to help our officers.”
- Better: “LPRs find stolen cars and violent fugitives by automatically checking license plates. The program saves taxpayer money by solving crimes for a lower price than hiring more officers. This is safer and more effective than officers typing in license plates while driving. Unlike your cellphone, LPRs respect your privacy by deleting data after 30 days. Call your councilperson’s office at 123-456-7890 and tell them to support funding for license plate readers.”
- The rest of the story: After you’ve told readers the big thing and why it matters, then you can dive into interesting stories, historical anecdotes, etc. Respect your audience’s time, because you have a fraction of a second to capture and hold it. If people want to read it, great. If not, they have at least read and taken away exactly what you needed them to.
Set the Narrative
Here’s a question for you: Who is to blame for the anti-cop narrative?
Hey, Siri, who sets public opinion? “Personal experience, friends, family and community opinion leaders exert powerful influences on public opinion.” Thanks, Siri.
In other words, you have the same opportunity to set public opinion as the activists, politicians, new media or anyone else. That means that you, the police union representative, are responsible for setting and shaping the narratives around police topics by informing the public with timely, accurate, informative and consistent dialogue.
Frequently, the first person to shape a narrative wins. The second you hear of an officer-involved shooting, critical incident or something that is going to be newsworthy, you should set the narrative before the media does.
“Officer shoots teenager in road rage incident” is the clickbait framing the media will give the story. “A 19-year-old fired a gun at our off-duty officer, and the officer returned fire” is how you should. If your message gets out there fast and accurately, you will prevent the often inflammatory, misleading narrative corporate media will spin.
This does not mean giving out information that is not yet publicly available. Always follow your department’s policy about releasing information. If your public information office (PIO) is not moving fast enough to get positive news out, either ask your department head to release the information or use info directly from the press conference as soon as it is given. This is where a sharp social media admin earns their keep.
Attract New Followers
You must keep growing your audience to remain relevant. Every day, new officers come into your department and new residents come into your community. Simultaneously, officers retire and people move out. If a growing portion of the people engaging with your message no longer live and vote in your city, you are losing influence.
Have a plan to continually attract new people so you stay current with your community. An easy one is to simply task your communications committee chair with one annual social media raffle (see my previous article). Try getting new officers and people who didn’t participate the previous year to invite their friend list.
Explain What Your Officers Are Doing and Why
If the community doesn’t agree with something your officer did or doesn’t support your position on an issue, it’s your job as a public servant and especially as a union rep to educate them about it.
Who else is going to do it? Department PIO? Not a chance, and that’s fine. It’s something you must come to terms with as a union rep. Here’s why: Your department heads answer to politicians. If politicians don’t like what your PIO personnel or chief has to say, they’ll find someone else who can read the script. Do not complain, especially publicly, that your department is not being assertive enough about speaking up for your officers.
As the union, you can say things that your department cannot say. This is a good thing. This is your opportunity to step into the information and leadership vacuum and fill it. Oftentimes, nobody wants to be first to say what needs to be said. When your union takes the lead on arguing for a contentious topic, it makes it easier for your supporters to come in behind you and publicly back you up.
Recognize the rules of the game here and take the lead. If you, as a union leader, are looking around for someone else to be a thought leader about issues affecting your officers, you are wrong. You wanted to not only be a union rep but to be the voice of that union, so take lead at every opportunity.
Not only do you have to be the captain of the narrative-crafting ship, but you will also have to fend off activists trying to raid your narrative ship and take the wheel. Always seek to take responsibility and ownership of the narrative and be ready to fight for it.
Give Politicians Completed Plans to Fix Problems
Believe it or not, politicians and your department’s executive team are always looking for good ideas. Implementing good ideas makes them look good. Having your good ideas implemented makes you look good. So why aren’t more good ideas implemented?
Offering good ideas to management is like suggesting to your busy neighbor with six kids that he mow his lawn. “Wow, what a great idea,” he says. “I’m a little busy. Can you do it for me?”
If you are going to offer an idea, plan to own it from start to implementation. What does that look like?
I keep a sticker under my monitor that says:
- What is the problem?
- What are three solutions?
- Which solution do I recommend?
Take the time to research the problem, test some possible solutions to the problem, find out what your plan will cost and who will do the work to implement your idea, and write a presentation explaining this information. Management should be able to pick up, review and run with your idea like a grocery store shopper picking up a box of cereal off a shelf. They want a product ready to eat, not to be handed more good idea seeds and have to grow and harvest their own cereal.
Recognize and Reward Good Behavior
Be quick to say, “Thank you.” If a city councilperson, citizen, business owner, activist or anyone else helps your department in any way, make sure you go get a great photograph of them with your officers and share that information. People appreciate recognition for their effort. Tell the public about the work they put into helping your department, how the community will benefit and how it affects your officers.
Pop quiz: If you and your team spent months researching and creating a plan to get new vehicles, then handed it to a city councilmember’s sleepy staffer, and the councilmember merely nodded approval to get your plan funded, who should get the credit?
Answer: The councilmember and their staff get the credit. Grab a photo of the councilmember with your officers and write a post saying, “Brilliant work by Councilmember Smith and her staff. These new vehicles will help our officers quickly get to people’s 911 calls!”
Bottom line: Being a social media admin should be a thankless job. If you’ve done your job right, even the “thank you” is still a bargaining chip that you should use to your union members’ benefit.
Tell the Public How They Can Help Your Officers
Ever notice how activist groups always find community members to support their cause? Have you caught on to how this support usually involves showing up at a podium at City Hall to voice support of the activists’ message?
Notice that they usually win?
If you want something changed at City Hall, you must get the community to carry that message for you. There’s a difference between police union muckety-mucks telling politicians what the union wants and voters telling politicians what voters want.
Writing a post to tell the community, “This proposed new policy in front of City Council stinks. Don’t vote for it,” does nothing to help your officers. It doesn’t explain what the problem is with the policy, what a better solution is or why anyone should care. What it does do is signal that nobody thought asking your union for its opinion was necessary, your union is not a part of City Hall dialogue and your union has little political skill or ability to shape or affect policy. It’s weak, it’s whiny and nobody wants to hear it.
Instead, spell out precisely the solution you recommend, write out draft language for a proposition a politician can vote on, explain why it’s a better choice for community members and then tell them what to do to help get your solution implemented.
- What should the message be?
- Who are the decision makers in this discussion?
- What number should your supporters call?
- Who should your supporters send an email to?
- Where and when can they show up for a public discussion?
When a vote is on the line, take a page from the activists’ playbook and get the public to carry your message for you.
Use Statistical Data
Graphs and charts catch attention. Better yet, they back up your arguments by laying out data and statistics. If your union wants to move the needle of public opinion, plan to include interesting data with your posts.
Want funding for a license plate reader? Compare the annual cost of an LPR with the value of vehicles and property it can recover. Highlight a neighboring department’s LPR recovery stats as an example. Same with crime arguments: If you say you need more detectives to deal with rising crime, make sure your department’s monthly crime reports don’t contradict your argument.
Plus, learning to use Excel or Google Sheets to create your own charts and graphics will help you in the news cycle. News reporters are always looking for accurate information they can plug into a story, and you are the right person to provide it.
Your union will either shape the narrative, or someone else’s narrative will shape your union. Fighting to control the narrative around policing in your jurisdiction is like Sisyphus’ task of rolling a stone up a hill for eternity. Accept the challenge of the job and learn to thrive in it. Be sure to always be training your replacement, because at some point you will need to take a break and pass the torch.
You don’t have to learn through costly trial and error. If you are new to police labor unions and want to improve your knowledge, I recommend police labor union attorney Ron DeLord’s books. Law Enforcement, Police Unions, and the Future gives any person new to union operations solid foundational knowledge. If you need to improve your social media post writing skills, pick up Smart Brevity by Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz. These two books alone will take years off your learning curve.
Look for Part 3 of this series, covering compelling photography for police union social media, 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.