Social media in 2013 as a social utility shocker

citizen talking with police on her doorstep

Friendly conversations with the police

About 5 years ago I spent some time talking with a company that was developing a social media platform that would provide value specifically in disaster and crisis situations. It was to be a resource managed by the emergency services themselves, that amalgamated all manner of social properties and thereby facilitated communications, both broadcast outwards and narrowcast inwards. The logic was quite sound and had the potential to provide value not only for the police, fire and medical emergency services but also for larger industrial concerns that may well wish to have disaster contingency plans that included an element of social media insight. Alongside facilitating live and critical information transfers relating to a particular problem (from employees or the general public – imagine a series of channels that could observe and report the fast moving boundaries of a wild fire, for example) it would have also served as a broadcast platform, through multiple channels, that could be used to help coordinate localised evacuations and the like. I was helping them out with some development strategies but we didn’t do a lot of work with them in the end and I am unaware of how successful, or otherwise, they have been. It was, however, one of a series of boundary moments for me and my developing understanding of how the social media model could be utilised beyond the mundane and trivial exchange of status updates and amusing content.

About 2 weeks ago I had another social media revelatory moment that was also emergency service related, although of a considerably different timbre.

Matt Murray, the Chief of Staff for the Denver police department did a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) specifically in order to clarify some of the issues relating to the new status of the marijuana laws in Colorado. He was supported by DPD Sgt. Howard, the Colorado police’s marijuana expert. Regardless of your views on whether weed should or should not be legal I challenge you to find this use of social media as anything other than valuable.

But there is a but. These police officers didn’t just do a Reddit AMA. Specifically they did a Reddit AMA with class and intelligence, and in so doing, in my opinion, demonstrated some simple principles for using these kind of communication channels as official channels for..…well almost anything.

1. Straight up, right off the bat they set out the terms of the discussion and what they would engage with and how they would engage. They foresaw potential flash points and disarmed those potentials before they occurred and they offered other channels of communication for the questions that were deemed as off topic for this particular conversation.

Setting expectations

2. They were friendly but they were also unapologetically cops. This means that they could deliver both warnings and advice in the same sentence.

we are the cops

3. They were funny and personable and appropriately so. Not always an easy path for police officers to take.


4. They didn’t shy away from what might have been touchy questions but instead answered honestly and in a non-inflammatory fashion.

We will enforce this

Opinion on policy

In marketing circles, ever since the publication of the Cluetrain manifesto (although you’d be gobsmacked to know how many marketers have never heard of it), and even more so today as content marketing becomes the big trend du jour, generating a conversation with customers and prospects has been a genuinely tricky challenge.

Firstly it was a technical challenge, something largely solved by social tools. More recently it has become a content challenge. We all want to have these fabled conversations, but we can’t afford to be the boring or bland individual at the party that everyone ignores. Pushing crafted messages, of course, avoids this problem by, amongst other things, changing the expectations (which is essentially a nod to the modern history of marketing communications and still the current hallmark of many uninteresting social initiatives). The long and the short of it is that being the responsive half of a real marketing conversation is an intimidating and tricky thing to do well.

Perhaps the most scary element of a true conversation, in this context, is that some of the people in the conversation might disagree with you and might even be unnecessarily antagonistic as well. Even more problematic these adversaries might be cogent, intelligent and valid.

Again, this conversation (and it was a real conversation) with the Denver police shows an effective way to engage in these circumstances also.

When the AMA was announced it was also publicised on the Denver sub reddit itself which led to one of the architects of the new laws (u/A64Attorney) being invited to join in the discussion. As you can see the invite was based on a pre-existing distrust of the police in Denver and how they had been perceived to react to the new laws.

Some slight distrust

This is a perfect demonstration of yet another reason why this is such a great forum for this kind of discussion. The fact that anyone can join in enables both sides of the story to be told, which in turn (if done well) enhances the credibility of both sides of the story (assuming all parties are sincere and not behaving disingenuously).

Here is an exchange involving both the police and u/A64Attorney. Just brilliant.


This is a great example of how to use social media to foster a real conversation. A lot of brands use twitter as a live Q&A forum, and that makes sense as twitter can be ‘always on’, but I do believe that this example from the Denver police demonstrates that the appropriate use of longer format social locations have massive value potential also.

However, there are challenges beyond simply the content. Reddit by its very nature delivers both the platform and the ‘other half’ of the conversation. Reddit, though, is not always receptive to naked marketing plays, however well intentioned, and is quite good at sniffing out the disguised ones as well. Fortunately there are other places that this kind of exchange can occur but this needs to be planned and thought out. Like all marketing communications there is the what and there is the where, the messaging strategy and the media strategy. The media landscape for these conversations is not complex, nor is it particularly broad although it is under managed in my opinion, and in that vein it is instructive that this post isn’t exploring the media side of the equation at all either (mea culpa).

On the other hand though this AMA has some great pointers for managing the content side, even if some of the learnings are more poignantly valuable for the tricky job of being a modern policeman.

But here’s the thing. If the police in Denver can navigate the problematic waters of hosting a social conversation about something as controversial as marijuana policy…….then modern brands should be able to host valuable conversations about something nice and straightforward, such as their (surely desirable) products.


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