Go Big or Go Home: NYPD’s Twitter Strategy

This blog series highlights some of the top Social Media Beat posts from the last couple years. For more information about IACP’s Center for Social Media visit the project webpage. This post was originally published on Thursday, September 17, 2015.

Guest Blogger: Yael Bar-tur, Digital Strategist, New York City, New York, Police Department

In New York City (NYC), we go big or go home. In a little over a year the New York Police Department (NYPD) has gone from 0 to 100 in the world of social media, quite literally. At the beginning of 2014, the NYPD had one centralized Twitter account; today we boast 109 accounts (with close to 500,000 followers among them), each serving as the voice of an individual commander or chief. The accounts are run exclusively by the commanding officers and uniformed members of their staff. While the guidelines and training are set by our office at 1 Police Plaza, the content is not. Commanding officers are encouraged to speak in their own voices and use these accounts to engage with their communities regarding specific issues relevant in their fields.

Before you rush to open 100 new Twitter accounts for your agency, it’s important to note that large-scale operations are not necessarily the best option for everyone. For most municipalities, one account on multiple platforms can serve as a great one-stop-shop for all updates. However, if you are speaking to a variety of different audiences and feel the need to expand your presence, consider the following tips based on our experience.

  1. Keep your audience, not just your agency, in mind

When deciding who in your agency should get a social media account, be selective. At the NYPD we give Twitter accounts to those who have communities to cultivate (such as precincts or housing service areas that oversee certain geographical areas) or specialty accounts that can provide their audience with interesting and topical content (have you met the NYPD bee keeper? You can watch him livestream his captures on periscope!). It may be tempting to base your decision on the rank of the person or their desire for an account – but every channel you open should complement the others, not detract from them by creating redundancies.

  1. Train the people on the ground

As you may have suspected, the NYPD doesn’t employ 109 civilian social media strategists. Each precinct commander runs his or her own account with the help of their respective staffs. And while few had any social media experience beforehand, it hasn’t been hard for them to learn. In nearly every training I conduct, an apologetic officer confesses that they “don’t know anything about computers.” I tell them that technology is the easy part. The challenge lies in creating the right content, disseminating relevant information, and fostering a sense of community– all things that the officers on the ground are well equipped to do. As a civilian member of service, I am proud to say that all NYPD accounts are managed by uniformed officers, who with the right guidance and training can represent themselves digitally better than anyone else.

  1. Set them free (almost)

How do we at the NYPD approve and control every single tweet? The answer: we don’t. The fast nature of Twitter won’t allow for multiple command chains and lengthy approval processes. As novel as the idea might seem in law enforcement, we rely on account holders to tweet using their own discretion. This allows for original content and unique voices to shine through, which is invaluable in a medium that cherishes authenticity above everything else. A great example of this is one of our most retweeted tweets ever from a precinct in Brooklyn following the assassination of Detectives Ramos and Liu. This painfully personal message that could not have been expressed through mass dissemination of one unified text from headquarters:

Go Big or Go Home

This leap forward has not been free of hurdles, from getting the right equipment to slowly changing the mindset regarding speaking publicly amongst lower ranking officers. However, the social media landscape is not waiting for police departments to catch up as it constantly evolves, and only those who are willing to take the risks associated with this playing field stand to gain from it.


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