Decentralized Social Communications: Scary Stuff!

Post by: Kim Stephens

ad697e01Do you keep your social media presence “close to the vest” (e.g. only allowing Public Information Officers the ability to post content) or does your strategy include the ability for all agency officials to reach the community?  The latter type of presence involves letting go of control to some extent and this, of course, requires a huge leap of faith from leadership, especially in top-down oriented public safety organizations. However, this type of strategy is currently being done quite successfully.

Decentralized Communications: Is this The Evolution of Your Social Presence?

In the book “Social Media in the Public Sector Field Guide” Ines Mergel and Bill Greeves suggest that a decentralized approach to social media content production is evidence of an evolved use of social media in organizations. They state that agencies that have been using social media for a while often “make social media the responsibility of everyone” and offer the benefits of this decision:

A recent decision at the Department of Defense was to abandon the role of the social media director and instead transfer that position’s responsibilities onto many shoulders in the organization. It is very difficult for a single department or division to speak with the knowledge and authority of all the business units of an organization. “Official” responses often require time and research. They frequently result in formal answers that do not fit the casual tone inherent in social media. By formally distributing the tasks and response functions to those who have the knowledge required to have meaningful online conversations on social media channels, you can decrease maintenance costs, increase trust in those exchanges and reduce the number of missteps or rounds of interaction it takes before citizens get the “right” response from your agency. (pages 110-112)

Jim Garrow, who blogs at “The Face of the Matter” makes a similar case: “My point, and it naturally follows from last week’s post on having others write for your agency, is that we [PIOs] need to get the hell out of the way. Let your agency shine through every day. Give your experts the podium they deserve. Build them a following (or let them build a following).”

But how would this work for public safety organizations?

The Toronto Police Department provides an example of complete decentralization of social media content. As can be seen in the image below their agency’s website homepage has all the “big 3” social media buttons: Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. These buttons take the user to their official account, most likely administered by a Public Information Officer.


Choose, however, the “Connect with us” tab right below it, and their world opens up. I counted 119 different social media accounts for this organization–119! What are all these people talking about? Ideally, the content they are posting should be directly related to their position or function in the organization, and with each of the samples I chose at random, that proved to be the case. Take for instance Sgt Jack West—who has the title of “Traffic Enforcement.” No shocker, he talks a lot about traffic and how people can stay safe–e.g “Don’t text and drive” etc.

Patricia Fleischmann or @caringcop on Twitter, has the title of “Vulnerable Persons Coordinator.” What does she post about? How elderly and other people who might be vulnerable to crime and natural disasters can be better prepared. She also Tweets quite a lot about people that are helping each other, organizations folks can turn to for assistance, and information from community meetings she attends. She has a healthy following of 762 people.

I could go on for while with examples, but feel free to explore of these great social feeds yourself by clicking here. So, how do they keep everyone in their “lane?” How do they keep all of these people from embarrassing the organization and posting inappropriate content? Yikes–this is scary territory!

I have been told by some of these Toronto Tweeters, that they do the following:

  • Before they get their social account, they are required to attend a 3-day intensive social media training class that provides them with not only information about how and why to use social networks, but also how NOT to use them. This would include Department and City posting policies.
  • Each of the accounts are clearly marked with the fact that the person works for the Toronto Police Department, however, they do often choose to use their own picture instead of the PD’s logo–giving the account a personal touch, which I think is critical for community outreach and engagement (it says to the public–we are people to).
  • Each account states that they do not monitor the account 24/7, and that if anyone needs emergency assistance they should dial 911. (See below–each person’s account information looks almost identical.)
  • Each Twitter profile links back to the official website.toronto2

This obviously is not a willy nilly hey, all-you-guys-go-Tweet-something strategy. Their strategy is obvious, their goals are clear; and it seems to me they are meeting the objectives of reaching out and  connecting with the public on platforms that the public uses everyday.

See, it’s not so scary after all!

13 responses to “Decentralized Social Communications: Scary Stuff!

  1. There are actually well over 400 social accounts for the TPS when you include Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. A decentralized approach is excellent for day to day operations. Simple safety reminders, tips and information in general is great when it comes from multiple voices. Aside from basic commentary and conversation there isn’t a lot of deep end consumer value.

    When an emergency occurs though, that is the time to batten down the hatches and turn to one leading voice. Generally that will be the corporate voice, or the voice of authority with the best, most accurate and timely information. At that point then all the other voices can add ‘some’ value be re-sharing that information.

    But, could you imagine if that many unique voices all decided to start their own commentary?

    This is the final piece of the puzzle is required. A working strategy and understanding that is in place.

  2. kim26stephens

    Thanks for your comment Tim. Yes, I agree it could get messy, however….what if each of those folks were asked to upload images of what they were seeing to provide enhanced situational awareness–properly tagged, and geocoded. How else could a PIO sitting in IC know that a motorcycle accident was blocking traffic? If the information is correct, and verified by the official on the scene–should they withhold that content simply because there is a bigger disaster happening? Each of the reports from these individuals in the field provide a node of information that is confirmed, official, and geolocated. The other example was not necessarily a person on the scene but rather someone who has an audience with vulnerable populations. Again, she similarly would need to continue to tell the group that followers her content on a daily basis where to find resources and what actions they should take. Are you suggesting that all of a sudden her tweets should stop? Of course, the location of shelters would have to be verified–it would be unwise for her to tell them to go to a location that was not open, for instance, which is where the coordinated message comes to play. In my opinion, however, we need to think out of our current box.

    • The sharing of accurate information is the key.
      The voice of authority has to be the trusted source of reliable and accurate information. That should be the priority voice from which has the best information. In turn all other voices don’t need to be silent, but they need to share the information of the authority voice and direct the message in each direction where it is required.

      Accuracy has to win out each and every time. A coordinated message stream must exist. While every account can and should be speaking to their audience, the message must be clear and concise.

      In emergency management, there is no room for messy in the communications field. .

  3. The use of social media presents hard choices for first responder organizations and emergency management agencies, particularly in the transition from routine to incident communications. Truth is it’s about empowerment. Not about control anymore.
    While I agree with Tim (Hey buddy ! ) that you need a centralized, authoritative voice to speak and provide critical info … you also must use the voices of the people who are trusted every day to communicate with your audiences … they have relationships that can be used to amplify the corporate messaging, supplement it with audience-specific info and, very importantly, provide a platform for some feedback from the people you serve.

    In other words, trust your people ! Particularly when the bad stuff hits the fan … that’s when they shine …

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  5. Thanks Patrice and Tim for this debate. This is a new world and everyone is trying to sort out how to apply and revamp current/engrained practices, plans and procedures to the new reality. I’m guessing it will take a while before it is sorted out!

    • Kim…this is fantastic information to continue the movement towards a fully transparent and open communication model that can be embraced and adopted by all organizations. The key…monitoring must be included and leadership within the communications circle to send the proper information for authority and the autonomy for the other accounts to speak freely in the information sharing cycle.

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  8. “Leadership”….that is the key word. Without involvement from leadership, as well as occasional guidance about tone and tactics, none of this would work. Thanks again for the conversation!

  9. It’s been great to see how social media has played a role in this recently – it’s crazy to think about how differently columbine would have gone down if they had had social media back then.

  10. Kim, the solution SMC4 provides the ability to operate social media communications in a decentralized manner with centralized control, authorization, supervision along with record keeping. Here are some of the features provided:

    1. All authorized Social Media access is provided using unique SMC4 usernames and passwords that are independent and separate from the native Facebook, Twitter, etc. credentials. (Limits native credentials access to a need to know basis)

    2. All SMC4 user accounts can be authorized to post on behalf of a native social media account. This means externally the posts are represented as your Facebook, Twitter, etc name and internally they are represented by the unique SMC4 username. (Provides traceability and answers to the who, when and what questions that arise).

    3. Role based accounts that dictate what privileges a user has (Follows the hierarchy of an
    Administrator, Supervisor, User and Auditor roles. (This maintains the downward flow of authorization and upward flow of responsibility in a police hierarchy)

    Outgoing Social Media Communication:

    1. Supervision
    a. All posts are recorded and archived with the user’s SMC4 unique username, date and time stamp for audit purposes (no need to guess which officer posted which message and when)

    b. Any or all SMC4 users can be configured so that any outgoing post created must be approved by a Supervisor role (Eliminates the “inappropriate” post issue)

    c. Capability to control and schedule the automatic broadcasting of Social Media posts prior to the event. (Road closing, planned events, public safety announcements, etc)

    Incoming Social Media Communication:

    1. Control
    a. All external posts are recorded and archived along with date and time stamp for audit purposes

    b. Automatically block, delete or respond to inappropriate external posts as per your Social Media policy 24/7 without additional human intervention (profanity, threats, etc)

    c. Automatically hold external posts until the PIO decides to release them. (For situations where the PIO is staffed for a portion of a workday, weekends and holidays or are being overwhelmed by a Social Media viral event)

    Check it out at or

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