4 Tips for Using Social Media to Engage Your Community

@billdelaney: Don't have a dept social media presence? If even one member of your dept does then you do! #beaware

This tweet is a synopsis of something I said to the gathered audience at this past November's VCOS Conference in Tampa. By the stunned looks and overall reaction post-presentation, it was apparent that many chief officers who thought they had proactively headed off any social media disasters in their departments by not having any department sanctioned social media presence—or by just ignoring it and hoping it all goes away—were back to square one.

The stark reality is that if even one member has a social media platform and self-identifies as a member of your department, you do have a social media presence. Since there's an official void, any posts this person makes referencing your department may be viewed, by the public and local media, as having merit and legitimacy.

Add to this the fact that we're in the age of the citizen reporter, engaged civic activists and realtime news/information dissemination, and you may find that you have no control of your message, whatever message it may be, and more than likely will have to play catch up to set the record straight on one or more issues. This could end very badly if you have a line-of-duty injury or death, as the race is on to notify family before social media does.

Don't panic! Social media, embraced and used correctly, can be utilized as an effective communication tool for your internal and external customers.

@billdelaney: What to do? Engage members, learn more about SM, plan a presence & develop on/off duty policy/procedures. See @IAFC. #donothide #beproactive

This tweet offers the foundation for building a social media policy and practice. Normally, I'd insert a link or two in the body of this tweet to provide you further information, thus in essence overcoming the 140-character limit. For those of you who operate outside 140-character limits, here's an expanded version of those tips:

  • Engage members – See who is doing what and find individuals in your department who understand social media and may be able to assist you. Challenge them to be positive digital ambassadors for the department.
  • Learn more about social media – There are resources available to learn the basics of social media. A DHS group I was a part of, Virtual Social Media Working Group (VSMWG), through firstresponder.gov is a great place to start. A good document to learn how to get started is Virtual Social Media Working Group Social Media Strategy (PDF).
  • Plan a presence and develop a strategy – It's okay to start slowly! You don't have to initiate several platforms. For public-safety agencies looking to develop and implement social media, this is a great resource document: VSMWGroup Next Steps Social Media for Emergency Response (PDF).
  • Develop on/off duty policy/procedures – Guidelines and setting expectations for department members is a must. If it isn't in writing, it mostly can't be enforced. The IAFC's Model Fire and EMS Department Social Media Policy is helpful. In addition, Curt Varone, deputy assistant chief (retired) from Providence, R.I., offers some very useful bullet points you can use as a framework for a policy:

Check out IAFC webinars about social media; you'll find these at IAFC.org/Webinars [http://www.iafc.org/webinars], under the Communications & Technology section:

  • Social Media in Large-Scale Incidents – The webinar addressed the growing use of social media in fire and EMS during large-scale incidents, examining examples and offering best practices on how your department can improve its own operation. (Originally conducted Oct. 31, 2013.)
  • Social Media Issues in the Fire Service – This webinar addressed challenges facing fire service leaders today, using recent case studies. Topics included digital imagery, Facebook postings and departmental policies for both on- and off-duty firefighters. (Originally conducted Oct. 23, 2012.)

Need some more information or definitions? Check out these resources:

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