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Philly Police Department Social Media

PPD - Version 2.0

January 07, 2014
Frank Domizio walks to the back of the lecture hall on the first day of LeBow's "New Media Marketing" class. Undergraduate eyes amble to his holstered firearm and the letters on his badge: "Corporal, Police Dept." Few students notice the BlackBerry on his belt. When a cop walks into a classroom, digital screens lose the headline to the badge and gun. But for the Philadelphia Police Department, digital screens haven't just won the headline — they have redefined the story.

The lecture begins. Domizio’s BlackBerry buzzes with a traffic advisory text that he tweets using the @PhillyPolice Twitter handle. Perhaps 20 seconds pass from text to tweet. Domizio opens his laptop and begins typing notes. He might be on the job, and he might carry a gun, but he’s here to learn. What he doesn’t know is that today isn’t just the first day of class — it’s the beginning of a new partnership between two of Philadelphia’s largest organizations.

Public relations is no picnic for the police. Positive news rarely breathes airtime on television broad-casts. But over the past five years, the Philadelphia Police Department has engineered a PR about-face. They stopped relying on broadcasts and took control of their own headlines. This isn’t the type of story you see on the 6 o’clock news. Remember the old saying about the pen and the sword? These days, the PPD has elected to focus on the video and the website.

Currently, the PPD claims the largest Facebook following (Sept. 2014 update: more than 80,000) of any police department in the nation. The @PhillyPolice Twitter account has over 10,000 followers — not counting beat detectives who manage their own pages. The PPD YouTube page will soon break 2 million views.

Corporal Frank Domizio monitors the @PhillyPolice Twitter feed, which boasts over 10,000 follows

These numbers aren’t just commendable; they are astonishing. This kind of engagement with all age demographics — from Gen-Xers to geriatrics — would make a marketing manager salivate. It’s not uncommon for PPD Facebook posts to receive 2,500 “likes.” The brand is so far ahead of the curve that the PPD’s success merits legitimate academic study.

According to Larry Duke, LeBow associate professor of marketing, who taught the “New Media Marketing” class with Marketing Department Head Trina Andras, Ph.D., the PPD is setting the bar for the rest of the country.

“They are the leaders,” Duke says. “It’s another channel for them to connect with the public and help the city. Hats off to them.”

While the Department’s social media success story began with the objective of building positive public relations, the PPD’s business isn’t about Web metrics or marketing plans. It’s about community service and catching criminals. And with the use of social media, namely the use of video, business has been good. But before there were plaudits, there was pain.

Take, for instance, a headline that ran in USA Today on Nov. 1, 2007: “Officer shot during Philly holdup dies.”

On Halloween in 2007, Officer Charles Cassidy was shot in the head during a holdup at a Dunkin’ Donuts on North Broad Street — the third city police officer downed in a four-week clip. A DVR caught the incident; however, the Department had no way of processing the video to share with the media. Cassidy was dead by morning. The assailant remained at large. Meanwhile, the DVR was flown to FBI Headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, to be extracted and processed. The policing community held the same heavy breath for three days.

Enough was enough.

Lieutenant Raymond J. Evers, who handles media relations for the office of public affairs and remembers Cassidy’s passing in painful detail, calls the episode a defining moment for the department.

“We had to waste 36 hours to process a video. It showed a glaring problem. It should not take 36 hours to get info from a DVR. That was the impetus.”

Not only was the lack of resources unacceptable, the department’s total reliance on traditional media to share information with the public was a problem. While the gunman was eventually apprehended, the model had to change.

Change came: His name was Ramsey.

Charles H. Ramsey was sworn in as police commissioner on Jan. 7, 2008. While his achievements are well-documented — violent crimes and homicides are both down by double-digits since his arrival — little has been said about how he has overhauled the department’s PR strategy. Or how his staff has redefined the concept of community policing in the Web 2.0 era.

Speaking in his office about the challenges he faced back in 2008, Ramsey notes that positive stories showing constructive community interaction were lucky to claim 15 seconds on the average newscast. At the time, when most large organizations had already tapped social networking to engage with the public, most large police departments were still in the dark ages.

“I really didn’t fully understand the power of social media,” Ramsey admits. “But I knew I wanted to move the department forward any way I could. You don’t necessarily have to know it all yourself, but you better make sure you have people around you who do.”

Ramsey moved fast. A strategic plan was devised. Karima Zedan was recruited as director of communications. Zedan, who insists “we are not gurus, just practitioners,” called in local Web design firm Hyaline Creative, staffed entirely by Drexel University graduates, to help rebuild the PPD’s website with full mobile functionality.

The @PhillyPolice Twitter page launched in September 2009. The new website launched by the end of that year. Official Department YouTube and Facebook pages followed in the spring and summer of 2010.

The most radical step forward would come through a training program, made possible by $75,000 in grants and training from the FBI, to teach Philadelphia detectives from all six divisions to capture, edit and share video remotely.

Training for the DIVRT (Digital Imaging Video Recovery Team) program began in Feb. 2011. Representatives from each division were given laptops and $5,000 in software. Using a video editing package called Camtasia, detectives could now construct and edit a two-to-four-minute vignette, complete with headlines, subtitles and face-blurring capabilities, share the video with the office of public affairs via DropBox and see it on the department’s YouTube channel in minutes.

“It’s absolutely amazing that since we began posting video online, people watch it,” Ramsey says. “Not only do they watch it. If they recognize someone, they pass along the tip.”

Lieutenant Evers says the change was almost instantaneous.

“Now, we are the media’s competition. We’re driving people to our site, not their sites,” Evers says. “Even if you go to Channel 6, a decent video is lucky to stay up for a day or a day and a half. With us, it’s always up. People can see our tweets and posts anywhere. From the comfort of their living room they can help us solve crimes with a call or text. We give people options.”

Since the DIVRT training, the PPD reports a 30 percent success rate apprehending criminals through tips stemming from videos posted on its YouTube channel. It’s not just vindication for a fallen officer or another feather in Ramsey’s cap; it’s proof that community policing is still alive and well. It just took a while to re-introduce the police to the public.

“If you go in the poorest of neighborhoods, you’ll find people on a cell phone texting,” Ramsey says. “It shows the power, ease and how comfortable people are communicating this way.”

For the department, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have added virtual venues for town hall meetings; common ground for civilians to communicate with cops. Some say social media has even usurped the “walking beat” — the idea that an officer walks through the community each day, chews the fat with shopkeepers, lobs a few pitches for kids in alleys — a relationship that lends itself to identifying the criminal element. Those days may be waning, but Ramsey refuses to admit that they’re over.

“I don’t think that you can replace human interaction. It’s an important part of our business. You need to be able to look people in the eye, establish trust and relationships. And maybe one day you can obtain that artificially through social media.

“We’re pushing forward,” Ramsey says. “We’re making it easy and as comfortable as possible for people to reach out to us. Fifty years from now, this conversation may be a total waste of time. But today, there needs to be a transition.”

Today, Philadelphia cops are tweeting from their beats. Mobile Incident Response Vehicles canvass the city to extract DVRs from crime scenes to be posted on YouTube. Officers hand out business cards with addresses to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and a QR code that launches the PhillyPolice mobile site. Citizens can now text or tweet tips or photos to the department’s Real Time Crime Center.

The Philadelphia Police utility belt — version 2.0

In one case, a child sexual assault suspect in Kensington was apprehended just 16 minutes after his photograph was posted online.

Says Domizio: “The only faster way would be if he committed a crime and walked over to headquarters.”

During the Occupy Philly demonstrations this past fall, activists thanked the department for keeping them informed through social channels during what could have been a dangerous stretch. It wasn’t just technology; it was dialogue.

The national law enforcement community has taken notice — and wants to join the discussion. Police departments from Texas to Indiana have called for advice. Facebook’s government liaison in Washington regularly checks in to refer departments looking for guidance.

Corporal Domizio, a 16-year veteran of the force with a predilection for new technology, was recruited to manage the department’s booming social media presence in January 2012.

Already enrolled in Goodwin College’s Computing and Security Technology program, Domizio heard about LeBow’s “New Media Marketing” course and immediately sent an email to Duke asking to audit the class. His request was approved, with enthusiasm, by both the college and the commissioner.

“Education is the only way you stay current,” Ramsey says. “If you don’t take advantage of educational opportunities, new ways of communicating like social media, you become irrelevant pretty quickly.”

It didn’t take long for Domizio’s presence in the classroom to make an impact. He arranged for Duke to tour the Round-house (Police Headquarters at 8th and Race Streets) and speak with the commissioner. Duke was surprised by the gesture. He was even more surprised when the Office of Public Affairs asked him how they can push their presence to the next level.

“It was amazing to see how great a job they’re doing,” Duke says. “And they are even more committed to it now, when they’re on top, than before.”

With full support from LeBow’s Marketing Department, plans are in motion for the PPD to guest lecture in Duke’s class in spring 2013. Officers will also make an appearance in Duke’s capstone marketing strategy course, where undergraduate students will consult and offer proposals to improve the department’s new media effectiveness. Publishing opportunities in academic journals are also in the pipeline.

“They think they have only scratched the surface,” Duke says. “They are definitely not complacent. They know that our students have the motivation and creativity to come up with usable ideas. It’s a real vote of confidence; that’s for sure.”

The reverence is reciprocated in full by the PPD: “Drexel is a major university here in Philadelphia,” Ramsey says. “I met with [President] John Fry. He was very excited about us working together for a stronger collaboration in a lot of different areas. This is just one more. It’s good for the university, and it’s good for the department.”

Last spring, Corporal Domizio was just another student sitting in the back of a classroom. Next spring, he and his colleagues will be at the lectern. If social media has taught Domizio anything, it’s that the PPD’s success has less to do with the uniform than the attitude.

“I might wear a badge, but I honestly forget it’s there,” Domizio says. “I’m here to learn.”

If you happen to see him in class typing on his BlackBerry, don’t worry. He’s not slacking. He’s just doing his job.

Photos: Jerome Lukowicz

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