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Forces struggle to get the message right on social media

Nottinghamshire apologised over an ill-judged Facebook post last week. Is this part of a reoccurring theme of forces mishandling their social media strategy or a symptom of people's tendency to be too easily offended?

A force’s communications team has once again been criticised for getting it wrong on social media. Last week Nottinghamshire police apologised after a Facebook post sparked allegations of victim blaming when it suggested women should not walk alone due to the risk of attack.

The post read: “Taking a risk when it comes to walking alone at night is not one of those things we should be doing. Women who walk alone especially at night are at risk of harassment, or even physical assault.”

One Facebook user responded: “When I read this, all I feel is fear and am reminded again, that as a woman I’m not supposed to be in public spaces. Change the narrative please!”

The post was quickly removed and a police spokesman said: “We recognise this was a clumsy attempt to communicate an incident with the underlying intention of keeping people safe.

“The post was swiftly deleted as soon as it was brought to our attention. Feedback has been provided and we would apologise unreservedly for any offence caused.”

But it is not the first time a force’s communications team have come under fire for a misjudged message put out on their social media account.

Last year Merseyside police were forced to backtrack after they posted a link to a video called ‘Know When To Step In’, to encourage friends to look out for each other’s safety on a night out.

The tweet read: “She told her mates she’d had enough. The bar staff knew he shouldn’t have served her that last shot. Her mates should have gone outside with her. Shouldn’t have left her on her own in that state. Know when to step in.”

This was met by a backlash of criticism that the message was shifting the blame from everybody else but the perpetrator.

Responding to the tweet using the hashtag #takeitdown, Dr Anna Cunningham wrote on Twitter: “This doesn’t highlight how friends can help each other stay safe, though. This says it’s the fault of everyone but the rapist. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Did your comms team not seek advice from professionals in the field?”

This was in fact the second blunder of this nature by Merseyside’s communications team. Responding to a tweet about Everton beating Sunderland in a football match in November 2015, Merseyside Police engaged in a rape joke from its official Twitter account. It was responding to a joke tweet sent to their account which read "Hello. I'd like to report an incident of rape that occurred at Goodison Park, Liverpool, on November 1st at 3:00", to which Merseyside replied “Just confirm there was no actual rape? Sunderland certainly got caught with their pants down.”

Jo Wood, from the Merseyside Rape and Sexual Abuse centre, said at the time: "It's really bad news. We work with victims of sexual violence across Merseyside and I have been getting messages from survivors.

"I think it's a real shame. We work closely with Merseyside Police and we've come a long way. Something like this could set us back years.

"It's completely inappropriate. It's appalling and sends out completely the wrong message.

"There needs to be some sort of training put in place. Clearly this individual is not aware of the impact of what they did."

These tweets were later deleted and an apology issued. A full investigation was also launched into the “inappropriate use” of the official police Twitter account. The civilian member of staff who wrote the tweet then left the force by “mutual consent”.

Another case of a joke being poorly received happened when Lincolnshire put out a message on their Facebook and Twitter account after a combine harvester caught fire in July this year.

The post read: “The A52 is closed at the Ropsley turn due to a combine harvester blocking the road which is on fire. No injuries have been reported. While this is a serious incident we can’t help ourselves…oh I’ve got a brand new combine harvester and I’ll give you the key.”

The joke backfired. Just one of many disapproving comments on the Facebook post read: “Shocking – That’s someone’s livelihood you’re joking about. Shame on you Lincolnshire Police.”

Others came to their defence, saying that people were too easily offended and asking the public to remember that the police were human too.

The news and engagement manager of the force at the time said: "As a press office for a police force, we issue a lot of messages which we hope the public and press will pick up on because by their very nature we are trying to tell the public something about which they need to be aware. We try to balance the need to be factual and informative with the need to grab attention to ensure those messages are spread widely.”

They went on to say: "On this occasion we got it wrong and the tone and content of our message wasn’t appropriate, which is why after review we quickly removed the message. It was never our intention to cause offence or be disrespectful.”

Martin Innes, professor of police science at Cardiff University, said a misjudgement in tone was part of the police and social media learning curve.

He said: “The police want local interactions with the public but of course the people on the front line aren’t communication professionals. Different forces adopt different approaches and they are trying to establish what the norms and conventions and what the boundaries are.”

Professor Innes took part in a report produced in 2017 by Open Source Communications Analytics Research Centre (Oscar) which aimed to understand both the challenges and opportunities social media poses to policing. Oscar, which was led by Cardiff University and funded by the College of Policing, said approaches to social media were fragmented and some forces struggled to keep up with technological advancements.

Professor Innes went on to say: “Fundamentally it comes back to the structural dilemma between the capacity and capability of organisations to control their communications versus the imperative of social media technology.”

The College of Policing said that while it issues guidance in general terms on police use of social media, it was up to individual forces to decide their own social media engagement strategies and policies.

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