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Don't @ me: Why Halifax police are turning to social media to improve public relations

The hot new tactic police are using to win over HRM is basically shitposting.

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HRP WYD? - THE COAST
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The day before Valentine’s Day, during a severe snowfall, the @HfxRegPolice Twitter account sent out a reminder to residents that it’s illegal to walk on the street.

“No, that’s not what the law says at all,” responded Ben Wedge, a transportation advocate and former member of Halifax’s Crosswalk Safety Advisory Committee.

“If you could leave the law enforcement up to us would be great! Enjoy the day,” tweeted HRP to Wedge. Four days later, the cops seemed to have second thoughts about that comment.

“In hindsight, the tone of this remark was offside and took what was friendly banter too far,” the police tweeted. “Lesson learned.”

The department’s new casual tone on Twitter isn’t accidental. For every public safety notice and crime report pushed out by the department in the last several months, mixed in has been a dash of millennial-friendly irreverence. Every organization needs a brand, and Halifax Regional Police has been trying to build its own through a new social media strategy. But whether it’s appropriate for a police department to allocate so much time and resources to its public relations is a question worthy of a signal boost.

The cops’ evolving social media strategy was developed and implemented over the course of 2016. Among other things, it decreed all executive managers and division commanders should be tweeting, and created new social media accounts for HRP’s mounted patrol and K-9 units. It’s quite literally a dog and pony show; encouraging “proactive” social media campaigns to show off the “human side of policing” via the department’s 18 poofficial Twitter accounts.

“The posts that go viral, that’s what people would like to see,” says chief Jean-Michel Blais. “Those things that are unique, people aren’t expecting, that have a sense of humour in there or are contrary, biting.”


According to HRP’s policy manual, a consistent and respectful tone across the social media brand is extremely important. Still, there’s bound to be some variation in what gets published, says HRP’s communications advisor Cindy Bayers, given that seven different people monitor and post to the primary Twitter and Facebook accounts.

“We try to balance the serious tone of policing and crime-related posts with a more relaxed tone and friendly posts, while maintaining high standards of professionalism,” writes Bayers in an email.

Friendly posts—like say, constable Shawn Currie giving a fake ticket to a child on the waterfront two summers back—are easy-to-digest moments created to be retweeted far and wide. They belong to the same phylum as all the other feel-good police stunts the content gods churn up every so often into your timeline: Nickleback-threatening cops in PEI; RCMP parodying “Hotline Bling” in Nova Scotia; ice cream cones instead of speeding tickets in Halifax, Virginia.

Public relations like that is a lot easier—and a hell of a lot more fun—than the complicated work rebuilding relationships with communities that have been historically disenfranchised by police, says Ardath Whynacht.

“That’s a very different thing than having a bunch of staff paid to tweet funny memes to cover up for the fact that we have a huge problem like street checks,” says Whynacht, a sociology professor at Mount Allison who teaches criminology.

Also a board member with the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project, Whynacht says recent steps like HRP’s voluntary withdrawal from this year’s Pride parade are positive efforts towards repairing relationships with the public. But in a city where black residents are three times more likely to be street checked than white Haligonians, Whynacht says she’s worried about the department’s “level of insincerity” in having more paid PR staff than people actually going out into communities to rebuild trust.

“In what way does having PR professionals on staff with police have an effect on public safety?” she asks. “Is making sure the police have a bunch of communications grads on staff, is that helping sexual assault cases?”

Currently four civilian employees and one police officer work in HRP’s public relations unit; one in a new position that was created last fall.  Meanwhile, equity and diversity officer Amit Parasram and research coordinator Chris Giacomantonio (who are working with the communities affected by, and researching the data on street checks, respectively) are one-man teams.

The PR department’s budget has also shown an increase over the last three years—up from $433,000 to $449,000—primarily due to compensation. Salaries and benefits over that period rose by $40,000 even while office expenses and advertising costs dropped by over 60 percent.
Whynacht isn’t convinced a police department even needs a PR unit, but if it does exist she thinks there are more helpful ways to go about the work.

“Start with the actual mechanisms and procedures of policing that are causing problems in the community,” she says, instead of “paying some grad from the Mount to tweet every now and again.”

Doubling down on public relations isn’t just about providing better communication, though. Along with using social media to build relationships and engage citizens comes the temptation to spin the department’s image—obscuring or disregarding any information that’s not on-brand.

“All communication is spin,” counters chief Blais. “Whether it’s written or oral, it’s all spin. It’s based around the individual author’s views of things and like it or not, we all have different views.”

The chief stresses that the department still has an obligation to the public to present the facts. Occasionally they might miss the mark, which is why Blais says it’s important to admit the screw-ups and apologize.

“We’re only human beings,” he says. 
“I think that’s the biggest thing we’re 
trying to get out to people: We are human 
beings.”

In all likelihood, the department is tweeting to the choir with that message. When it comes to social media, usually whoever's liking and sharing HRP’s posts will already have a high comfort level with policing.

“They’re not going to have a bunch of 15-year-old kids in Clayton Park all of a sudden following the police chief on Twitter,” says Whynacht.

Even the cops aren’t immune to the echo chamber of social media.


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