Toronto Police Service Social Media
Photo by Toronto Police Service, via Facebook

The Toronto Police: Building a More Social Service

In late 2008, a friend of mine suggested that I should start using Twitter to connect my message with the public. I laughed. The thing was, I had no idea what I laughed at. I had heard of Twitter but I truly didn’t understand it or the power that was available in a mere 140 characters.

My message was traffic safety. Helping protect lives by talking about safe road use, obeying the law and, of course, the ramifications that go hand in hand with not adhering to safe road practices: death, arrest, tickets, insurance payment increases, and all that other exciting and happy information.

My job as a Sergeant with the Toronto Police Traffic Services was purely to communicate traffic safety issues with the goal, “Reduce injuries, collisions and death in the city of Toronto.” It came at a time when road crashes were rising, the total number of people injured and killed was increasing, and resources were being stretched. There wasn’t any money for campaign creations, advertising, or anything that might help raise awareness. The media didn’t have a lot of room for proactive messaging, so…Twitter.

My immediate bosses were open-minded enough to let me give it a try, so I started the Traffic Services Twitter account. It didn’t take long to see some success. Everyday people, not media or other police officers, but everyday people were talking with me on Twitter about traffic safety! They were sharing the messages of attentive driving or the responsibilities of an aware pedestrian. Twitter chats, trivia challenges, contests and interactions all became commonplace as part of my everyday activities. I was so excited—I had to have more!

Next came Facebook, a blog and YouTube. I couldn’t get enough of this social media stuff and people were really starting to notice how much could be accomplished.

The Command Officers of the Toronto Police Service, under the leadership of Chief William Blair saw the potential that social media could provide, and authorized a Service-wide social media presence complete with training, risk management, policies, guidelines and a place within the organizational structure for the use of social media.

Very quickly, the Toronto Police Social Media Presence went from a couple of authorized accounts to over one hundred accounts. A manager with the Service’s Corporate Communications Meaghan Gray was assigned the task of monitoring the program, overseeing the training, instituting the policies, and making sure the messages of the members were in line with the Service goals and priorities. We wanted to be sure that what was being communicated was for the good of the community and the Service.

It was decided that the members that received training would be authorized for Twitter and Facebook. They were also being shown how to use other platforms, and they were given an introduction to their functionality, but the Service knew that a concerted effort first on the big platforms that were attracting the masses was the best place to put the social efforts.

Monitoring tools were talked about but there simply was no money available. The tools we wanted weren’t to monitor the public; they were to monitor our own accounts. There were only a couple of people with enough experience to really know how to drive down into information streams and look at accounts, conversations, as well as adhere to the guidelines and the policies to keep making the program better.

Problems will come with building a massive program quickly. In the business world, scale problems are almost always welcomed because it means growth and prosperity, sales and leads. It can mean more employees, more services offered, and the potential for a bigger bottom line.

For the TPS program, the massive growth meant monitoring new social media account users was becoming a full-time job in itself, with a couple hundred accounts. But the growth wasn’t finished. There was more training, and new accounts were being created every month. The people attending the training were now seeing the benefit that was occurring with other accounts across the Service.

Toronto Police Traffic Services Twitter

Crime prevention accounts, public safety accounts, data analyst accounts, community officer accounts, and specialists in fields such as forensics, traffic, and homicide were all created. Many officers, commanders and units administrators were seeing the benefits of having a robust social media presence.

Communication with the public, the ability to answer questions, provide information, give behind-the-scenes looks into the world of policing were all happening, being shared and talked about on a daily basis.

The model of the social media program looked the same as the organization itself. There was a corporate account for the entire service, accounts for units and stations, and accounts for individual officers, all set up in the typical pyramid structure of a corporation.

Corporations of any size that have a large social media presence will all look exactly the same if they allow the freedom of individuals to speak on behalf of the organization. More voices (employees) at the bottom support the superstructure of the corporation (the individual voice) at the top.

With over three hundred people trained on two accounts plus the corporate account, there were a lot of conversations occurring. I moved from Traffic Services, where I had been helping out Corporate Communications with the program, to taking over the day-to-day management of the program.

Engagement was a top priority of the program. We believed if someone said hello, you said hello back. If someone had a question, you answered it. Needed information? You got it. Plus, the members and units had the autonomy to make their voice in the program unique and individualized to heighten the relationships that were being built. The more engagement there was, the more monitoring there was. The more we had to send messages out to our users to help finesse their voice and provide feedback for jobs well done.

Tools that allowed mass monitoring of our accounts became vital to seeing the conversations and helping out our members. I found that a combination of the free tools that were available along with going into the individual platforms themselves to look at the information was a good balance for managing the risk of a very large program, offering support to many made for a manageable workload.

In the beginning I was told by one person that using social media wasn’t a very good idea because, as he put it, “What will you do if someone asks a question?” That was the ultimate risk aversion statement I had ever heard. Risk management is not only about managing risk, but it also embraces taking calculated risks that provide measurable benefits.

Building a social media program that aspires to be great, with multiple layers and many voices, is a great idea if your organization can support it with strong leadership, excellent monitoring, a robust and agile training program, and the proper tools to get the job done right. The tools will help minimize inefficient time use and maximize targeted and prioritized actions.

I look back at that original conversation about Twitter and how the police could use it. I didn’t understand at the time the incredible potential of social media, but I’m not laughing anymore.

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