During a recent demonstration by the EDL in Birmingham, West Midlands Police put out a couple of tweets aimed at countering misapprehension and rumour that was spreading, preventing a tipping point potentially leading to violent disorder.
This contrasted sharply with two recent multi-force deployments I have been on recently.
On the first deployment, the commander was asked what the Social Media policy was and he simply stated ‘We don’t have one, police officers should not be using social media at work.’ This was followed by the threat in the operational order that any police officer using social media during the event would be disciplined. On the second deployment, the Gold strategy (directed by a senior officer) encouraged the use of social media to engage, but the Bronze (operational commander) clearly dictated that officers were not to use social media and faced discipline if they did. (An explanation of Command levels can be found here)
I have previously highlighted how social media can be used to engage with protestors (Negotiation and Protest); similarly, HMIC has identified the use of social media as good practice in engaging and communicating during protest events. It is worrying that some middle managers don’t follow the strategic direction and fail to recognise evidence and good practice.
This raises the question, why? I can only speculate, but would suggest that middle managers in the police can be very risk averse, PAJ Waddington described the fear of ‘in the job trouble’ where the fall out from something going wrong during a contentious event is damaging to the manager at a personal level, either to their reputation and standing within the organisation or to their promotion prospects. This manifests itself in an unwillingness to trust and empower officers because they may do something out with the control of the manager. Allied to this is innovation inertia, whereby innovation is not adopted because it isn’t understood and cannot be controlled. Social media falls into the twin perils of not being understood and not doing what it is told, nothing can be more dangerous and potentially damaging to middle managers.
I am not advocating a social media free for all, the use of social media during a protest has to follow a specific strategy aimed at engaging with all parties and ensuring the potentially damaging misinformation is corrected. This can be achieved by outlining a strategy, empowering and encouraging officers to achieve the strategy and strong briefing and debriefing, including the recognition of good practice and an honest appraisal of what worked and what didn’t.