Senior leaders and the use of Twitter (in the Oracle yesterday)

Understanding what might positively impact on behavioural change in policing environments was a topic that was discussed at the Society of Evidence Based Policing conference in Manchester recently. This theme is also apparent in much of the academic literature focused on organisational justice and the need for a sense of fairness and effective engagement in the workplace. The link between these factors, morale and officer buy-in to reform programmes and organisational priorities is clear in the evidence available.

Research relating to behavioural change from the Behavioural Insight Team suggests that specific and positive feedback is a vital driver of morale in policing. However, who provides the feedback and the forum within which it is given is equally important. In the current climate many officers feel that the service they are providing to the public is compromised. Additionally many officers feel that the issue of ‘policing’ is not prioritised by government officials and the welfare of officers is not considered at all. Therefore the wider positive consequences of their own senior leaders being visible with support and praise for them within a public forum is critical.

This article reports further findings from a survey completed by officers about police use of Twitter. Twitter provides a public space that can act as a vehicle to communicate exchanges between senior leaders, the rank and file and the public. The use of Twitter by senior officers was an area of enquiry in the survey and more specifically the use of this forum for them to provide feedback in a public, yet virtual environment, was a key theme.

The breadth of readership on Twitter is largely unknown and the consequences therefore of who may read messages from any officer is important to consider. Officers reported both negative and positive ramifications of senior officers’ use of social media. The increased levels of visibility and accessibility were received well, however if the messages posted were read as an opportunity to reinforce corporate messages with no level of the ‘personal’, the impact was detrimental to the image of senior officer involved.

For example, one officer stated; ‘what I think is worse is the officers who have accounts but regurgitate corporate messages and dictate rather than engage. I think this is damaging to the average person’s impression of the police and damaging to the average officer’s impression of their leaders.’

There is a clear opportunity for senior officers to use this forum in a supportive way. Respondents gave examples of senior leaders who offer reassuring statements, regular feedback and praise for their teams and recognition of some of the issues affecting officers themselves. This, when done well, was delivered in a non-partisan way which negated any threat to the senior officers’ professional identity. However, when messages were perceived as less human and personal the result was described as frustrating. This then compounded the problems already present in relation to the lack of concern about the current situation with officers’ sense of well-being.

Going back to the issue of the opportunity for the public to read these messages as the end users of the police service is paramount. The recent Police Federations’ ‘Cuts Have Consequences’ campaigns were potentially one of the first publically visible statements about the impact of cuts to policing. These were very positively received by officers in the main. Being honest and transparent about both effective service delivery and, conversely, recognising the compromises to this is another way of telling the public the reality of policing today. This is arguably as important on the way officers feel supported, by their leaders, as it gives the public information about the limitations on what they can currently deliver under the constraints of austerity.

Twitter has vast potential as an extended engagement tool for senior officers to portray a wealth of different messages to police officers and the public on a national level. Paying lip service to this method appears to have damaging consequences to the reputation of the leader. Silent users of twitter who had inactive accounts were seen as “going through the motions” and as being insincere.

Senior leaders who were considered as effective by respondents were those who showed empathy and understanding about different policing matters. Perhaps, more importantly, that they also utilise Twitter for their own learning from more junior officers. Given the recent blog I wrote for the Canterbury Christ Church policing site, not publicising this learning to the police community on Twitter is a hugely wasted opportunity both for their own reputation as a leader and officers’ sense of value.

Another area of perceived negativity amongst officers is the media reporting of policing and the bias affects this can have on the public. Senior leaders who write in a reassuring fast time manner about police activity is viewed as a way of counter acting, or at least attempting to, the one sided reporting of some police interactions. Even when this information does not always report positive outcomes it would appear that when delivered from a police voice first, in a more balanced manner, the message is more positively received from officers. Junior officers value the opportunity taken by their leaders to inform and feedback to the public themselves about events in an honest and transparent way.

What we would advocate from these findings is that there is a real consideration about what the true purpose of Twitter and other forms of social media are for senior officers. Different motivations for its use leads to a disparity in its perceived value and credibility of the user. As one officer stated; “a strong Twitter presence used in the right way by senior leaders can show really strong support for officers, give clear and succinct views on wider issues and allow them to sell their own values in a positive way. Saying well done to somebody in a very public forum can be a lot more rewarding than doing it privately behind closed doors. My staff thrive on being retweeted by the boss”

The key point here is when looking at the evidence on key drivers, if senior leaders want to improve their teams’ morale, willingness to engage in reform agendas and potentially well-being, there is a huge opportunity for Twitter and other forms of social media to play an active role. However it has to be done correctly to ensure any potential positive consequences are not reversed.

Emma Williams and Jennifer Norman

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