Social media engagement: the benefits for road safety

Published Sun, 11/12/2016 - 13:13

A conversation with Sgt Neil Dewson-Smyth, also known on Twitter as @SgtTCS

How did you come to have such a presence on social media?
When I first looked at Twitter, I thought ‘What’s this all about? There’s a lot of fuss, but I don’t understand it. Besides, I can do everything and more using Facebook. So I had a Twitter account but I just left it.
A few years later my attention was drawn to a blog written by an anonymous officer. This lit a spark. I wondered whether I could have an anonymous Twitter account – such as TCS – to give an insight into what happened in my world. So I set it up, and it just sort of took off.

Didn’t you worry that people would just watch you and wait for you to mess up?
I went through those nervy stages, with politicians and journalists starting to follow me, waiting for me to fall over. But I got over that. I remained anonymous for some time until work identified who I was. But they have been really supportive of me. They thought a lot of the content I was putting out was good and relevant. They even put me in for a day with corporate communications, hoping I could learn from them and they could learn from me. They seemed keen, but 12 months went by and nothing happened.

But you didn’t give up, then?
No. I wrote a blog about how the police communicate, and this led to a private message from the DCC, stating “I think you’re one of my officers…” I thought at first I would be in trouble but then thought no I wouldn’t be, because of the style of her approach.

What did she say when you met?
She told me to put my money where my mouth was. She gave me a three-month secondment, where I had to get out and about around the force, encouraging, guiding and cajoling people to see the benefits of what they could do with Twitter.

What reaction did you receive?
It opened a lot of people’s eyes. Our social media within the force really started to take off. It felt very much like spinning plates to start off with. I would walk away from somewhere to pay attention somewhere else, then find I quickly had to go back to do more pushing and cajoling. I worked out that without constant cajoling my efforts would just die. Now it has reached a critical mass, it generally happens of its own accord.

How have you ‘sold’ Twitter to colleagues?
Quite simply we have moved on. Police officers know we have been behind the curve with technology, especially compared with the private sector. I try to point out how things can be promoted through social media in a way they weren’t expecting. I mention the poster on the village hall noticeboard saying there’s going to be a meeting (which requires people to walk past, stop and pay attention). I then mention that just about everyone has a phone, which we can use to build up relationships and talk to our communities about policing matters.

What has that done for relations with those communities?
A lot of good. Police are much more seen as human beings, and not in the way the media often promote us. We’re breaking down the barrier between police and public. We’re not just ‘the police’ – we’re husbands, wives, fathers, mothers we just happen to be doing a job. It’s empowering because it’s giving the individual the opportunity to speak, rather than having everything driven by an official, faceless communications or marketing team.

Aren’t you lining yourself up for difficulties?
For police officers, the worst thing that can happen is to tweet something ridiculous, and find themselves disciplined and potentially dismissed. Sure, people become frightened of this. It’s technology but social media can't really be described as "new" any more but there is still a fear of it. The standards that you hold yourself to on Twitter are no different from the standards in your work. You’re just communicating in a different way.

What’s the worst thing that has happened in your Twitter career?
One night I was at home and put a tweet out that related to one of my children being in a bad mood. I suddenly realised that I had done this on the force account, not my personal account. I deleted the tweet straight away but in my moments of panic, I managed to get myself logged out of the Facebook account I needed to access. So it ended up taking three hours to get this post deleted. In the interim I really did panic. There were lots of comments posted, but they were all sympathetic. People seemed to accept that everybody’s human, and we all made mistakes. I was red faced, but no great harm was done.

Do you still have concerns?
The biggest worry all the time is that I will post something that upsets someone. I never plan to but the way in which the next person interprets something will always be different and that can cause difficulties.If someone else can’t accept something then I have a battle to justify whether I was right or wrong.

When I first started there was a misunderstanding and fear about what social media was about. Communications teams liked to stay in control. But I think I have contributed to bridging the gap between the traditional way of doing things and the opportunities the digital world presents to individuals and teams within policing. 

But I guess you have to push a bit, in case you’re seen as bland and dull?
I do try to push the boundaries, whenever I can. Another fear is being one step away from someone taking exception to something of mine which might lead to discipline. Making mistakes is easy. At one time they wouldn’t be tolerated. However, there’s a new way of looking at things that says let’s recognise we made a mistake, then move on.

What do you think is the best measurements of success from Twitter?
There’s an awful lot of talk about ‘data’ and ‘measure’ and whether something has been successful. Big data and information and analytics can give us a direction of how things are going to be. But we can be taken by surprise… the unpredictable takes everyone by surprise. Analytics through social media platforms can be given some regard but they’re not the be all and end all. Just because your tweet has gone onto x million timelines doesn’t mean that x million people have read it. Consider how many people have interacted with it. Have they clicked on a web link? Have they opened an image? Have they shared it, retweeted it or liked it? More importantly, are they now wanting to talk to you about it?

The stats give an indication of how far it spread but I’m not sure you could ever realistically say with hand on heart that you’ve made a difference in a road safety topic because of x, y or z.

You spearheaded the #DontStreamandDrive campaign on Twitter. Were you pleased with that?
I like ‘spearhead’. Yes. I was using the influence I have built up to get people to support the campaign. I encouraged a lot of people to support that for me. In return I go out of my way to support other worthwhile Twitter initiatives – just like TISPOL’s #ProjectEDWARD, for example.

So let’s cut to the chase. Can Twitter solve road safety problems?
Not alone. It’s another arrow in the quiver of road safety, and it can certainly help in driving the message home. If we look, 50 years of drink-driving campaigns yet we still have drink-drivers. Do we put down the drink-drive success we’ve had to Twitter? Or bans? Or promotion? Most likely a mix of everything that brings about longer-term change for the better.

One more question. You do a great deal of this in your own time. Why?
Because I love the conversations. I also love bringing people on board to share my journey. And I’m deliberately looking ahead to a time (not far off now) where I will no longer be a police officer but can still make a difference with my understanding of Twitter and social media as a whole.