Social Media Practices for Executive Staff

By Deputy Chief Chris Hsiung  |   Sep 3, 2019

The majority of police departments in the United States now have some sort of presence on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Nextdoor; and that’s a good thing. When used correctly and effectively, departments big and small can successfully manage critical incidents by posting timely information and dispelling rumors. They can also build a narrative that negates national assumptions around why we elect to go into a profession that’s sole mission is to protect and serve.

The rise of law enforcement agencies on social media has also brought about many command staff and chiefs who have created their own professionally affiliated social media accounts. This is a positive shift for our industry as it fosters communication and engagement with the public on a more personal level and allows people to get to know the faces behind the badge.

Even more important, being present on social media as a law enforcement leader allows you to consistently message the values that serve as a foundation to your leadership brand and style. Now, more than ever, our communities and our country need to hear the messaging and talking points you already deliver at community events, academy graduations, and internally to your staff; only now, with social media you’re able to magnify this message to a broader community of residents and businesses you serve (who are already effectively using social platforms). Our collective absence on social media as law enforcement leaders has allowed the narrative to be told by others.

This has to change.

We all understand the importance of effectively telling our stories to change inaccurate perceptions about policing. Having law enforcement leaders present and willing to engage on social media help toward that goal. It’s my belief that now, more than ever, law enforcement leaders need to be seen and heard online, in addition to everything we do in person in the community.

So how do we do this right? Some have “official” social media accounts bearing profile photos in uniform, while others have “non-professional” accounts with profile biographies that say something similar to, “tweets and opinions are my own and don’t reflect my agency…” Those with professional accounts know — or should know — to stay away from posting about certain topics like politics, personal opinions, or religion. Those with non-professional accounts would be wise to stick to personal opinions, thoughts, or whatever they are comfortable sharing on social media. The problem is when the two overlap.

I have seen far too many police chiefs, command staff, and line-level personnel who have “non-professional” or personal social media accounts blur these lines when they do things like this:

– Their twitter handle contains their rank (e.g. @ChiefJones_PD).

– Their profile photos or posts show them in uniform or portray their department patch, badges, or logos.

– They post official incident information from their “non-professional” account.

– They’re responsible for their department’s twitter account so you see identical tweets coming from the department and their account at the exact same time.

– They post photos of themselves during their workday, in uniform, during the course of their normal duties.

– There is almost always mention in their bio about, “…tweets and opinions are my own and don’t represent my department…”(Opinion: I doubt this would stand up in a criminal/civil lawsuit or internal affairs investigation).

This is not to say that law enforcement professionals should never post about law enforcement issues from their personal accounts. To the contrary, the issue is whether an examination of their social media feed or profile has anything in it that would make the average person think they used the account in an official law enforcement capacity (think back to photos in uniform, tweeting incident information, etc). Now, mix this with a few personal opinions about politics, religion, promoting their personal side business or (fill in the blank) and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Unfortunately, there are recent examples where police chiefs have lost their jobs due to opinions they expressed on social media, sometimes recently, and in other instances from years ago. The takeaway is this: don’t mix the two. Either keep your social media presence completely professional or completely personal and private (with the caveat that nothing is ever truly private on social media).

Recent case law has shown that law enforcement agencies are able to limit free speech rights of police officers and the topic has been written about in the media. Most contemporary department social media policies draw a distinction between personal (constitutionally protected) free speech vs. speech made pursuant to their official duties. As an example, the Mountain View (CA) Police Department social media policy says the following:

“Department personnel are free to express themselves as private citizens on social media sites to the degree that their speech does not impair working relationships of this department for which loyalty and confidentiality are important, impede the performance of duties, impair discipline and harmony among coworkers, or negatively affect the public perception of the department.”

and

“As public employees, department personnel are cautioned that speech on or off-duty, made pursuant to their official duties, ‘that is, that owes its existence to the employee’s professional duties and responsibilities, ‘ is not protected speech under the First Amendment and may form the basis for discipline if deemed detrimental to the department. Department personnel should assume that their speech and related activity on social media sites will reflect upon their position and this department.”

Another area where police chiefs stray on social media is when they break news on their own official social media accounts. Breaking news will always draw immediate “likes” and “reshares” of your post. Resist this temptation. If your residents and media are used to following your agency’s main social media accounts for news, it’s confusing to now have news come from a different account during a time of crisis. The best practice is to let your agency break the news online and in turn, reshare that agency post or tweet from your account.

In conclusion, I believe more law enforcement leaders need to be seen and heard online to make us more present, tell our stories, and be heard in the national narrative. In doing so, take care to draw a clear line between your personal and professional accounts. Your presence online is a valuable asset to your community and organization. In the same way that public events allow a forum for you to express your leadership values, brand, and style, consider stepping into the social media world to do the same. Your community is likely already there. Clearly know and understand the “lane” your online presence operates in (posting about leadership, community involvement, etc.) and avoid crossing into the “lane” your agency social media operates in (day to day posts, breaking news, or positive stories about your agency). Don’t let your discomfort with technology result in missed opportunities to interact online. It’s well worth the time and investment to use a communication mechanism that has now become

This article originally appeared in “California Police Chief” magazine.