Public safety announcements

Government agencies often update their communities about big arrests, traffic incidents, road closures. During Hurricane Irma, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office hosted a Facebook Live of a conference explaining evacuation zones. After the conference, locals used Facebook en masse to clarify with the department whether they had to evacuate or not, said Anthony Rodriguez, the social media manager for the department.

Facebook played an important role during the California wildfires in 2017. Napa County was surrounded by three or four fires each day. The county sends out updates through various services, including Nixle, which notifies subscribers of local emergencies via email and text. Many residents of the county are retirees, an age group that is increasingly using Facebook, and the local government finds the platform indispensable, said Kristine Jourdan, the county’s public information officer. “In a time of emergency we have to go where people are communicating, and where people are demanding to be communicated with,” she said.

Heather Williams, public information officer for California’s statewide fire protection agency CAL FIRE, said that since there are people who won’t act during an emergency, “we have to tell them every which way.” CAL FIRE’s Facebook followers jumped from 260,000 to 360,000 during the deadly fire season last year, she added. 

Emergency services and local governments also use Facebook for public education campaigns: How to make sure your fire alarm is working properly, how to maintain your groundwater well, how to become a volunteer firefighter. In Napa County, posts about employment opportunities, or mail-in voting after the fire season were particularly popular, Jourdan said.

Fostering relationships

Social media has put a lot of pressure on police departments, enabling the spread of videos documenting alleged misconduct. But Facebook is also a perfect channel to counteract that negative image.“Law enforcement uses Facebook as its photo album to tell its story to the community,” said Laura McElroy, a communications consultant who works with police departments.

The FBI, which has more than two million followers, uses the platform to recruit, posting job announcements that direct people to its website. “Facebook Live events have been a great tool for us,” said Monica Grover, a social media manager at the agency. Most of them center on recruitment topics, like, “What’s it like to be a special agent?” or “What’s it like to be a woman working at the FBI?”

Above all, social media platforms have become a vital tool for engaging with the community, which creates trust and helps solve crimes, Bueermann said. Facebook allows law enforcement to keep its hand on the pulse of the community. “It’s teaching police agencies a lesson that one of the characteristics of healthy police departments is a high level of transparency and accountability,” he said. 

What’s next?

Some agencies have already reacted to the algorithm change by letting their users know they need to be proactive to continue getting updates. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office posted a reminder to its nearly 54,000 followers that in order to see all of its updates, followers will have to change their News Feed preferences:

“We’re curious what the changes will be and how we’ll have to adapt our strategies,” said Rodriguez.

A Napa Valley school district even made a video explainer:

“It would it be upon us to get information to people, but also we would hope that any social media platform would help create access to information, and not create barriers,” said Jourdan. 

Facebook says that pages that have a high level of engagement will rank higher in the new News Feed, with their posts generating conversation in the comments. Savvier agencies already strive for a vigorous Facebook presence. Rodriguez makes his “Wanted” posters humorous, for instance, banking they will generate more engagement than those with dry information. 

Williams, of CAL FIRE, said that Facebook has in the past been receptive to disaster response organizations, so she is counting on the company’s help if the agency’s reach drops. And some believe the changes may force police to step up their game, encouraging them to study their Facebook data, follow trends, and invest in video. “In some ways Facebook is doing law enforcement a favor,” McElroy said. “Facebook wants to see a high level of engagement. And law enforcement needs to have a large amount of community engagement to be successful.” 

Facebook said that users will still be able to see local updates if they adjust their settings. The company is also testing a feature that will emphasize local news, including community updates—which could help, if the government agencies’ reach indeed is significantly enhanced. But that solution is still in its early days, and since, at least for now, it’s a separate section within the Facebook app, it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of important updates being right where most users spend their time—especially in an emergency situation. 

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