The New York Police Department (NYPD) is training its officers in the use of social media as part of a program aimed at improving the force’s image and avoiding scandals like the one in April when #myNYPD hashtag was proposed for members of the public to upload photos of themselves engaging with policemen and women backfired after protestors filled it with examples of alleged police brutality instead.
Does this social media training mean New York’s finest will now have their collective noses stuck permanently in their smartphones rather than catching wrongdoers, or that they’ll be taking selfies with the criminals they bust and uploading them to Twitter or Instagram? Hopefully not; the NYPD hopes precisely the contrary: that by training its officers in the use of the social media it can avoid further PR mishaps. There are already some successful examples of the police successfully using social media: the Spanish police’s Twitter account has proved very popular with the public, and is followed by more than one million people on @Policia, garnering international praise in the process.
It’s easy to get the social media wrong, and success depends on the right strategy, proper training, attitudes and aptitudes by those carrying it out. Things can go haywire at any point in the process: not just because the strategy is flawed or the communication team slips up, but when other people in the organization who are not even responsible for PR put their foot in it. I have seen employees of large organizations behave like medieval knights in defense of their “company’s honor”, achieving precisely the opposite intended effect. People without the right training or who have never used the social networks for anything other than keeping in touch with friends and family are much more likely to use inappropriate behavior according to the experts – although of course experts can sometimes be wrong too.
Just about everybody has a presence on the social networks nowadays. From the moment that the majority of an organization’s employees use Facebook or Twitter regularly, trying to prevent them from accessing their account while at work is a waste of time. The supposed “productivity loss” incurred while people are checking their accounts can actually prove hugely beneficial when any employee, without the need to use her work computer, can, via her smartphone, access the information she needs, when she needs it.
At the same time, the separation between the professional and social world is never definitive: asking our workers to artificially divorce both spheres is a recipe for disaster. Sadly, such practices are all too common: a while ago, the head of human resources at a large insurance company told me that employees were forbidden to say who they worked for online, in case they said or did something that might damage the company’s reputation. This seems to me a complete overreaction, and more importantly an approach that is simply unsustainable. What we do professionally is part of who we are: trying to get people to hide who they work for on the social networks makes no sense and is unjustifiable.
Most problems that arise on the social networks are the result of lack of training. Given the growing penetration of the social networks at just about every level of society, providing employees with the right skills and to understand the importance of the social networks becomes more important with every day. Today, a police officer must understand that the social networks are a conditioning factor in every sense: a transparent society requires our security forces to understand their impact, their dangers, and their virtues. And it’s not just the police: all organizations, both private and public are affected, for better or worse.
Helping employees to adapt to the times they live in, rather than forcing them to the margins of change, make sense, and is the best way to convert challenges into opportunities.
The idea that the social networks are a waste of time is, sadly, still common among board members too out of touch to understand the reach of the social networks in our societies, and whose skepticism and apocalyptic outlook can have a profoundly negative impact on the company’s strategy in this regard. Having worked in this or that sector, or having set up a business doesn’t automatically qualify somebody to understand the changes taking place around them. Social media now influence our opinions, ideas, and purchasing habits, while at the same time provides a permanent digital forum where a great many companies and institutions’ reputations are at stake. What’s more, those reputations are no longer dependent entirely on hiring community managers and social media superstars.
More important are the attitudes the organization demonstrates and encourages within the workforce, as well as the aptitudes it is able to develop among employees. Success, progress, and attaining a leading position in social media will come only with hard work.