Reimagining Communication

Reimagining Communication

One agency’s take on social media


In 2007, social media was on the rise within college communities and it appeared to be a lasting phenomenon. More online conversations were popping up every day, and face-to-face interactions were slowly disappearing. While many were worried about the downfall of society, some were identifying ways to capitalize on this switch and move with the rest of the world. But, could a police department really fit into this new space?

By creating compelling content that people will share, police departments can access the billions of online conversations taking place each day. If we’re completely honest with ourselves, we can quickly realize that safety messages aren’t exactly compelling, nor do many community members choose to share them in their spare time. This is where humor plays a crucial role in community relations both on and off campus. Especially within the college and university communities, people are searching for this humor and entertainment. Let’s provide it and spread some information along the way!


Humor. Without it, messages are bland and will have little traction. With it, we can impact a number of people without spending countless hours giving presentations during overtime assignments. The Iowa State University Police Department (ISUPD) has continued to break barriers when approaching law enforcement use of social media through continued humor that hits home with people from around the world. Being able to tie together current events and safety concerns with a dash of sarcasm can be very effective. ISUPD’s tweet mixing a foggy day with a call to stop vaping reached more than two million viewers. [See image 1 on page 20] Sometimes self-deprecating humor is the solution. The #DonutDisrespect campaign uses the well-known stereotype and a little wordplay to encourage worldwide respect. The video and campaign events were viewed on social media by trillions of people. With the use of outtakes, viewers were reminded of the message while also seeing that the officers in the video are real people. [See image 2 on page 20] Figure out how your department is viewed internally and you can develop an identity to help your community see who you truly are.

Think of your favorite brand. Consider only seeing or hearing about that brand two or three times per year. Will you lose interest? Now consider trying to build a relationship with your community. If you only have contact with individuals a few times every year, will the community support you in a time of need? Will they ever move past the point of support and begin to advocate for you? Liaisons and community outreach units can only reach so many people with limited time. If we begin to consider law enforcement as a brand, and can find a way to get others to effectively promote that brand, our messages can reach far beyond a single person’s interactions. The ISUPD joined social media with three primary goals to improve this reach: Remind, Enhance, and Inform.


In-person communication and education play an immense role in relationship building between a police department and the community. In addition, patrol officers are having positive interactions with community members on a daily basis. Social media can act as a catalyst to remind our community of these interactions and advertise future events where community members can elect to communicate and engage with officers in a non-threatening and positive environment.


Many efforts made by law enforcement require follow-up; education is no exception. By taking material provided during presentations or conversations and twisting it into a new medium, social media audiences become privy to additional resources and information. This new means of contact can continue to enhance the safety and wellbeing of the community with little strain on department resources.

Perhaps the most important way social media can improve community relations is by allowing an opportunity for feedback. Social media was not developed as a billboard and should not be viewed as a monologue. At a minimum, social media is a dialogue between an individual and an agency; in its finest form, social media allows large conversations to exist in a consolidated space. Some fear the consequences of negative comments being made, but the reality is those comments are being made whether the department is part of the conversation or not. Join the conversation and provide some guidance and direction for those negative comments.


The days of learning about recent happenings in the morning paper are long gone. The 24-hour news cycle has spread mass information, and in some cases chaos, by racing to the scene and reporting live. When on-scene law enforcement isn’t able to quickly answer questions about what is happening, journalists are inclined to find other sources: bystanders. As we know, these bystanders don’t always have accurate accounts of what transpired. If law enforcement were to take on the role of a journalist and provide breaking news or information as quickly as possible, we could greatly assist journalists. With the right information, journalists will have our narrative to draw from when reporting immediate, pertinent, and updated information; even if the breaking news provides only a vague description of an incident with the location of an upcoming press conference.

In a “need-to-know society,” our communities often beg for information about incidents that wouldn’t normally be published. Many educational institutions are governed by Clery and are required to push out emergency notifications or timely warnings. Social media can provide agencies with an additional way to reach people with information, even when Clery or press-release standards may not be met. Imagine being able to provide real-time information to your community of a major intersection being closed for a collision investigation. This resource could be invaluable, but how do you measure efficacy?


A wise chief once suggested the use of social media as a community outreach tool is like having a bank account. Every positive interaction we have and humorous post that is shared is like depositing support into our account. Undoubtedly, something will happen and we’ll need to call on the public support that was previously deposited. By this logic, every individual share, retweet, view, comment, reply, and engagement should be considered a success.

This support can be seen far beyond the reach of your campus or community jurisdictions. With social media, our reach is limited only by the ability for individuals to get internet access. Iowa State University has more than 36,000 students, but many of ISUPD’s social media posts are being seen by more than 100,000 people. Those viewers are interacting with the posts by both commenting and by sharing the posts with their own group of friends and followers. In a world where the primary form of communication is through spreading media online, getting others to share a post is crucial.

The number of people reached on social media is not the only means by which we can measure success. Through shares and views, new opportunities can be presented. Because of a few posts the ISUPD has made regarding recent Start By Believing—a program of End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI)—initiatives, the excellent work being done by employees throughout the department is getting international recognition. EVAWI has since written a spotlight article on the department’s efforts and has asked that department members join other professionals from around the world by presenting at future conferences. Social media can help us spread an in-person message on an international stage.

While an inappropriate use of social media may result in the demise of a business or organization, social media is a friend to be embraced with open arms. With a clear plan, and the flexibility to use humor, the divide between law enforcement and the general public in the United States can begin to be closed. If you aren’t reaching your community on social media, you aren’t reaching your community.

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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