Why Did Seattle Police Lose 400 Twitter Followers While Manchester Gained 11,000?

On July 26, the Seattle Police Department used its @SeattlePD Twitter account to post fragments of dispatch calls between 6am and 6pm – and in the process lost several hundred followers.  Without any advance notice, the account began a sudden, near-constant tweeting of emergency calls.  By 2pm, nearly 300 of their 9,000+ followers had ‘unfollowed’ the account, as reported by the Seattle PI blog.

Seattle Police Department Greater
Manchester Police
Campaign Date Oct. 13, 2010 July 27, 2011
Length 12 hours 24 hours
Avg. nr. of tweets per hour 40 100
Total nr. of tweets sent 487 3,205
Hashtag none #gmp24
Change in follower count – 400 + 11,000

This outcome, and the controversy around the Seattle PD Twitter campaign, stands in sharp contrast to a similar experiment conducted by the Greater Manchester Police in October 2010 (see our blog post and video coverage), which was declared a PR success with 11,000 followers gained and a global trending hashtag.

What was the Seattle PD trying to accomplish, and why did their Twitter campaign end up producing such different results compared to the success of the Manchester force’s efforts?

In this post, we compare two similar campaigns to see what can be learned about the strategies and tactics that worked (or didn’t).  We also check in with the Greater Manchester Police to see if the positive outcomes of the Fall 2010 campaign have had a lasting impact.

1. Campaign Objectives:

The Seattle PD was trying to demonstrate the role that the public plays in helping to alert law enforcement to potential crimes, and to raise awareness for this Tuesday’s National Night Out Against Crime.  Tweeting dispatch calls for a day was considered a 12-hour experiment designed to show citizens “what a day in the life” of the department was really like.

The Manchester Police effort was designed to educate its community about the nature of policing and to raise awareness about the broad range of social issues the force addresses on an average day.  Faced with budget cuts of up to £7 million, Chief Constable Peter Fahy turned to Twitter to educate the public about how its tax dollars were being spent, and to show how the cuts will stretch resources.

Both police departments were looking to raise awareness, but the Greater Manchester effort was framed in the context of a larger public debate about the nature of policing and the resources it required.

2. The Campaigns:

The Seattle PD Twitter campaign lasted twelve hours, with an average of 40 tweets per hour sent from 6am to 6pm on July 26.  The New York Times reports that by the end of the day, a total of 478 tweets were sent.  Despite wanting to demonstrate how many calls they get from the public each day, the Seattle PD considered domestic violence, rape and child abuse too personal to post.  Bomb threats were not made public, either.  Calls that were posted to Twitter included car accidents and theft, a suicide threat, hang-up calls, someone armed with a sword, agressive panhandlers and more.

The Seattle PD campaign began without any explanation for the increased volume of messages on Twitter.  In the afternoon, Seattle PD did post tweets linking to an explanation for the flurry of dispatch tweets.

In last fall’s Manchester campaign, the force’s communication department published more than 100 tweets per hour for a 24-hour period, for a total of 3,205 tweets with details of incidents taking place in Greater Manchester.  The tweets reported everything from real emergencies like thefts to non-emergencies like a man asleep on a toilet in a theatre.   To get around Twitter’s API limits on account usage, the force set up and used three different Twitter accounts and tagged all of its tweets with the hashtag #gmp24.

3. The Campaign Results:

Many @SeattlePD followers were “puzzled” and “annoyed,” according to The New York Times report, and felt frustrated by the police account clogging up their Twitter feed.  By day’s end, nearly 400 chose to ‘unfollow’ the @SeattlePD account.  Today the account is up to 9,800 followers – while we don’t have a count of followers before July 26, it’s possible the media coverage of the experiment brought follower numbers higher than they were previously, despite the initial rush of unfollows.

But according to Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the Seattle police, “This isn’t about growing our Twitter followers.”  He declared the experiment a success, and said it “got people talking about crime in Seattle.”   To those who tuned out the @SeattlePD account:  “If you stop following us, you’re welcome to re-follow us later.”

Linda Thomas, a blogger and broadcaster for local station KIRO-FM, disagrees.  She wrote a post criticizing the  Seattle PD for not making followers aware of the experiment, and for using Twitter as a one-way communication tool.  Thomas, who has built a following of over 15,000 as @TheNewsChick, felt the  Seattle PD’s Twitter account should have responded to tweets from followers that questioned the sudden proliferation of dispatch posts.  Thomas also questioned whether it was worth taxpayers’ money to have a member of the goverment agency’s communications team sending tweets all day. This concern was echoed by several others in the lively comments to her blog post.

Others were less critical.  The New York Times reported that some people “loved the feeds” and that some Twitter users in other cities requested that their police departments also post 911 calls via Twitter.  The Wichita, Kansas police department, inspired by Seattle, agreed to do so for one hour last Thursday.

None of the buzz created by the Seattle PD’s campaign comes close to matching the results that were achieved by the Manchester PD’s efforts.  The force’s main Twitter account gained 11,000 followers over the course of 24 hours. The campaign hashtag #gmp24 was a worldwide trending topic on Twitter, based not only on the volume of tweets generated by the force’s three Twitter accounts, but by the engagement from followers and supporters, and by the buzz created around the campaign.

4. Moving Forward

The Seattle PD’s Plans for the Future

How will the campaign play out for the future of Seattle’s law enforcement and social media? According to Sgt. Whitcomb, the Seattle police department may start posting 911 calls full-time, but on a separate Twitter account, and only if the posts can be automated, rather than relying on a live person to post each call.  In addition, next month the Seattle PD will have officers in the field tweeting their response to individual calls after the situation is resolved.

The Greater Manchester Police, 9 Months Later

We emailed Kevin Hoyt, Web Manager at the Corporate Communications Branch of the Greater Manchester Police, to ask him what impact his October 2010 #GMP24 Twitter campaign has had on the force’s communications strategies long-term.  According to Kevin, the campaign has changed their approach both to social media and to public contact.

The Force has continued to build on its social media presence, and has maintained a much more pro-active presence on Twitter and other networks, in particular YouTube and Flickr.  The main Greater Manchester Police account (@gmpolice) is now has just short of 23,000 followers, which is an increase from 16,000 at the end of #GMP24 and from 3,000 at the start of the day of the campaign.  Kevin writes:

“It has become an increasingly important tool for us and we have seen an increase in public contact through Twitter, particularly when members of the public are looking for information about local events or incidents. This has been a huge benefit operationally, when we have used Twitter to immediately update the public about developing incidents and been able to direct appeals for information at our followers.”

As a direct result of public demand following #GMP24 the Manchester Police has also introduced Twitter accounts for community police officers, which Kevin says have been very successful.  Certain officers will now tweet about local police-related issues within local communities, and the public are able to contact them directly with issues or concerns they may have about crime, or to provide intelligence about specific appeals.

Would the Manchester Police repeat its #GMP24 Twitter campaign? Only if there’s a good reason, with broader context.

“When we decided to go ahead with #GMP24 we were doing it because we had a specific reason and a outcome that we wanted to achieve. We would absolutely consider running something similar again, but only when there is a clear benefit for both the public and the organisation.”

Let us know what you think!

Is Twitter an effective tool for police departments looking to engage the public?  Or are public resources wasted on efforts like this?  Let us know in the comments below.

Related Posts:

UK Police Force Tweets Every Emergency Call

Manchester Police “Twitter Day” Educates Public and Builds Awareness [VIDEO CASE STUDY]