This article originally appeared on benefitscanada.com
It’s 2008 and Sgt. Tim Burrows, an 18-year veteran of the Toronto Police Service, has a problem.
He’s just been named the first-ever traffic communications officer for the force and is responsible for raising public awareness of Toronto’s traffic challenges, and for providing safety information to the masses. But, he’s had no formal media training.
So, he turned to traditional methods of communication, such as reporters and press releases. While he though these methods were working well, he soon found out they weren’t.
After speaking to the media about a serious road accident involving alcohol, an unfit vehicle and occupants not using seat belts, Burrows couldn’t find his message broadcast anywhere. He hadn’t made the cut because safety wasn’t considered good or exciting news.
“We didn’t have a problem with our messages; we had a problem with getting those messages out to the right audience. I had been going through, and relying on, the media to reach the public, but I needed to find other ways to fulfill my mandate.”
The same challenge exists for advisors looking to communicate with prospects and clients; people are increasingly searching for professionals via online reviews and communicating through media, so planners need to go further than simply starting a website. They need to reach out and speak directly with the public.
A new voice
Burrows’ colleague was already using Facebook and YouTube for the Crime Stoppers program, so Burrows—a self-confessed “technology geek,” —gave social media a try.
He launched the @TrafficServices Twitter account in January 2009, which followers with regular traffic updates and safety information. The account now has nearly 10,000 followers and was the key to success, Burrows says.
“Twitter provides direct access to the public without filters or editing.” He also started a Facebook account, blog and YouTube channel.
In 2010, Burrows helped create a social media initiative for the entire force. “My staff superintendent saw the uses for a service-wide social media program,” he says. “However, there was some resistance from other senior officers. They had justifiable concerns about people communicating messages on behalf of the force without any controls around that messaging.”
As with all social program launches, policies, procedures and training had to be put in place before the rank and file could begin on-the-job tweeting and posting.
Staff were trained and mentored on how to communicate properly with the public, and the Toronto Police Service held focus groups, looked at security risks and established a governance protocol.
One of the first challenges of the program was IT. “We have a very sensitive infrastructure,” says Burrows. “It holds a lot of private data and we have to protect that. [The department] tested the infrastructure, all of our equipment and the tools we planned to use to ensure complete security.”
Starting the conversation
All professionals using social media have to analyze their audience and communicate information these followers can use and relate to.
Burrows says, “We don’t have to say, ‘Do up your seat belt. It can save your life,’ because everyone knows that. We want to say, ‘Do up your seat belt because it will save you a $220 fine, which would affect your insurance rates.’ People then understand the other factors that may be important to them and why they care about your posts.”
To get the attention of your followers, you can also use tools like live video streaming of events or interviews. People often don’t have the resources or time to attend events, and don’t have access to high-level execs.
Burrows points out that social media is just one part of a larger program. By experimenting with new forms of communication, you can not only connect with the public, but also break down silos in your own work environment.
“We’re looking at being less regimented and at encouraging more collaboration and input from all staff,” he says. “If we’re not constantly looking at getting better, then we’re only getting worse.”
When asked how he calculates the return on his social media investments, Burrows said, “Facebook gives a really good demographic breakdown on [a page’s followers], but Twitter is completely anonymous—you don’t have an age, you don’t have a geographic location necessarily—so it’s difficult when people [ask] about the return on our investment. Our return on investment is knowing that our messaging is reaching a new demographic.”
He adds, “We’re reaching groups that have been difficult to [reach] through traditional avenues, [such as] the technically savvy under-25 population. And we have several pages dedicated to specific populations, including the South Asian, Chinese and Aboriginal communities.