More than 280 Characters: Why a Social Media Strategy Matters

Has your agency posted something on its social media account and wondered why it hasn't been as successful as you expected? Many agencies have launched at least one social media account; others have multiple, allowing accounts for the agency, program, and office level to provide more specific or localized content.

During our time working with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, we've seen a number of agencies hesitate to use social media as a formal communications mechanism. When they do use it, they often do so in the same way they engage with traditional media or their website, as a place to publish press releases, strategies, or other static content, looking to communicate broadly to the public.

Given public expectations about interactive and specialized communications through social media, law enforcement agencies should consider a proactive approach, and implement a strategy that focuses on getting the right message to the right audience.


"Building It" Externally: Audience, Message, and Channels


Identify who you are trying to communicate with on social media. While the default answer is "everyone," more-detailed answers will have a larger impact on the likelihood of success. Narrow your potential audiences to a specific age range or demographic, professional or academic sector, community group, or location. Each social media platform has a different audience and general use, and if you are trying to get a message to a younger audience, it is important to meet them where they are. However, if you're trying to reach an audience not on social media, such as older adults, a social media campaign could instead address caregivers and family members, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation did when they conducted an Instagram campaign on how to best recognize the signs that your loved one may be the victim of fraud and pointed to national and local resources. The Wilder Foundation launched a caregiver-focused campaign that reached 1.6 million people and led to over 17,000 visits to their dedicated caregiver webpage.



Tailored content, created to get the right message across to the identified audience, is more effective that general content broadly aimed at the public. Once you have identified who you are trying to communicate with, clearly define and describe the primary goals and objectives that you are trying to achieve in your social media strategy. For instance, identify what you want your brand to be, what the gaps are in perception of your target audience, and the unique content you plan to communicate to close the gap(s), tailored to the interests of specific segments of your audience. Likewise, think about what you want people to know and do after they see your content — are you trying to change behavior or perception, or are you trying to reach new audiences? Answering these questions will help focus your content, as well as enhance how you are messaging. For example, a picture of a presentation or panel at a conference informs viewers that you participated, but it doesn't capture what was said or why the session was important, just as posting an image and link to press releases or new reports and resources doesn't express why the audience should engage. Consider posting a quick recap video with a focus on personality — while still appropriate for the organization — that, like a commercial or trailer, will entice people to see or learn more.

Many government and law enforcement agencies err on the side of only posting professional content, but there are opportunities to take advantage of humor to draw in younger audiences. The humorous content the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and National Park Service post on their social media channels has helped increase their following considerably, which increases the number of people who see (and remember) the content. These two accounts are particularly notable, as they often communicate security (e.g., what not to bring at the airport checkpoint) and safety (e.g., bear sightings) themes they want people to remember — and put to use.



Different audiences are on different social media platforms, at different times, and are more likely to engage with different types of content. While Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) remain two of the most used social media platforms, YouTube and Snapchat are significantly more popular with younger demographics. Likewise, it may be more effective to post recruitment videos, links to job applications, summaries of conference and workshop presentations, and new publications and resources to LinkedIn, because its primary audience is professionals and those looking for job opportunities. X has been used by many law enforcement and government agencies to provide short messages and videos as well as quick updates during ongoing incidents. With the increase in the popularity of videos, especially among younger audiences, YouTube is now the second-most popular social media platform. Even though it is not one of the most popular platforms, Nextdoor may be the most effective for local community outreach because it requires users to provide and verify their ZIP code. For example, the National Park Service posts most of its humorous content on X, its content about the Junior Rangers program and job openings and professional content on LinkedIn, and a combination of the two on Facebook. This understanding of how different platforms are used, and the likely audiences is key to an effective social media strategy. 


"Building It" Internally: Strategy and Decision-Making

Adapt Your Strategy and Staffing

In your social media strategy, consider if/how you will respond to comments, questions, and criticism, and what you will do with information provided through direct messages and comments. Young audiences tend to prefer to provide comments and information through anonymous virtual means, which can be an opportunity to provide direct links to reporting systems or similar pages. For example, a study through the University of Michigan and Sandy Hook Promise Foundation determined that students are more likely to report suspicious behavior when the process is anonymous. While determining speaking engagement schedules for executives in support of your communications strategy, consider "live" social media engagements as well, such as live Q&As on X, going live on Instagram, a video recap on Facebook, and a summary with a link to the press release on LinkedIn, so younger people hear your key messages. You should also take into consideration how "active" your accounts need to be and determine your technology tools and resourcing appropriately to meet that level. For example, TSA also has AskTSA accounts on X and Facebook, and provides live assistance to people who text "Travel" to AskTSA (275-872) from 8 AM - 6 PM ET. Likewise, the FBI posts across its social media platforms 3-4 times per day and has a dedicated social media team to both create and monitor engagement with posts. Social media requires a certain engagement level — both from the content creator and the audience. Your engagement levels will decline if you are only able to produce one to two videos every quarter for YouTube, or don't regularly update Instagram with meaningful content.


Timely Approvals

Use of social media necessitates a delegated approval chain in which the people in communications positions and their direct supervisors are trusted to produce certain types of content with limited reviews, ensuring it's timely. Federal agencies, including Secret Service, FBI, and TSA, successfully manage social media through their public affairs or public communications bureaus and combine timely and fun messages with law enforcement and homeland security-related content. Likewise, many state and local law enforcement agencies have partnered sworn and professional staff as public information officers to effectively balance what information can be released and how to make communications more effective.

Social media is a space to engage and encourage your audience to get more involved because of your content. Social media should be viewed as your chance to proactively tell your agency's story to people who may not normally hear about it. It can also be a unique opportunity to highlight what job openings are available, why people should complete the application process, and what makes your agency different. When your agency builds the right internal and external foundation, social media serves as a vital force multiplier to help get the right messages to the right audiences.

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