The Chapel Hill Police Know Social

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 2.54.23 PMThis post originally ran on, and lives here, too.

The entrance to my neighborhood sits atop one of the many large hills in Chapel Hill.  As you crest the hill, there’s a good chance you’ll see a squad car perched at the intersection. It points out to Highway 54, with the radar gun leveled across the window sill.  And if you follow @ChapelHillPD on Twitter, you already know to slow down.

That’s right, the Chapel Hill Police Department frequently, but not always, tweets out when and where they’ll be enforcing the speed limit.

Sgt. Walker
Sgt. Walker

To figure out why the CHPD might do something so awesome yet so unconventional, I sat down with Sgt. Bryan Walker, who manages their social media presence. As I planned for the interview, I realized that this was the first interview with a police officer where I’ve been asking the questions.  How the times have changed.

Within minutes of our conversation, Sgt. Walker starts dropping lesson after lesson on marketing.  All of us tech-savvy, startup prima donna, self-proclaimed “gurus” were getting schooled.

Here’s what we can learn from the Chapel Hill Police Department about social media and marketing.

Go Against The Grain
Public offices and officials historically see little value in marketing and branding themselves.  Why should they? There’s no immediate, visible incentive.  The Chapel Hill PD felt compelled to go against the grain.  They wanted community outreach, new audiences otherwise untapped by law enforcement, and positive ways to engage the town’s residents. Think about it…most interactions with the police usually aren’t positive.  Going against “conventional wisdom” allows them to reach thousands of people a day and noticeably stand out.

Get Buy In
Both the town and police department leadership support social media to re-shape the town’s image.  This is no accident.  While the town may be considered “progressive” by some (go ahead, insert your favorite Chapel Hill joke here), Sgt. Walker built buy-in initially, and repeatedly over time.  Buy-in means better chance of success.

Chart your own destiny
No one grants you permission to come up with new ideas.  You only need permission from yourself.  Sgt. Walker wrote the job description for which he ultimately was promoted in to.  This is a fantastic strategy.  If you want something from someone else, tell them everything you’re going to do to help them, instead of asking for a handout.


Don’t feel compelled to build every new concept and creative idea from scratch. Emulate your peers whom you admire.  Prior to launching their social media strategy, The Chapel Hill PD discussed at length what attitude they wanted to convey.  Admiring how Seattle’s police force uses social media, they borrowed their helpful yet playful style.  What style?  At a 2013 marijuana rally, Seattle’s finest gave away bags of Doritos adorned with “you might be hungry” stickers explaining the new rules about legalization, while tweeting out #OperationOrangeFingers. Genius!

Master 1-2 Channels First
Every month, a new social media channel springs up.  Marketers have a temptation to do them all, spreading too little peanut butter over too much bread.  The CHPD focuses on two channels:  Facebook & Twitter.  They realize they still have enormous potential with just these two.  They’re going to go deep instead of going wide.  Smart.

Find Audiences In New Places
Twitter & Facebook allow them to reach audiences they never have before.  The few conversations I’ve had with police are usually in-person.  Now they reach me, and thousands of residents, every day with positive, helpful, and valuable messages. Twitter becomes their primary vehicle to reach the college crowd, with Facebook leaning towards longer-term residents.  As a marketer, where are new places to find your audience?

Massage the Message By Channel
All marketers know this, but not everyone does it, including myself.  Treat different platforms, and their audiences, differently, because they expect different content. Twitter is the department’s medium for instant, real-time updates like traffic accidents, breaking news, speed enforcement.  They use Facebook to tell deeper, richer narratives.

Include Your Personality
The CHPD likes Seattle’s approach because it humanizes the department.  It shows that they do indeed have personality, a sense of humor, and are regular people.  Is it all personality all the time?  No.  It’s just the right amount. I love bringing this concept to marketing as well.  Your marketing should include your personality, just not all of it.

Tell The Story You Want to Tell
Social media allows anyone to be a media company, no longer dependent upon others to spread your message.  This is incredibly helpful for police departments, who sometimes find themselves in the media because of a giant shit storm.  Now, they get to tell their own story.

Stepping back from marketing, this is an incredibly valuable lesson for startup founders. It’s easy to focus on the insanely challenging parts of your business and whine about that to anyone within ear shot. I complained, a lot, when my first company was melting down.  In reality, the startup experience remains a life changing event for me, which is a better story and much more enjoyable to share.

Remember the True Goal
Sgt. Walker initially received push back on tweeting out the location of speed enforcement. On the surface, it seems contradictory.  Isn’t the goal to catch speeders?  Nay.  The true goal of tweeting speed enforcement locations is to improve the safety of driving through our town. If a few hundred people slow down as a result of a tweet, mission abso-freaking-lutely accomplished.

The ultimate goal for Sgt. Walker? Reach people.  The most effective policing of a community comes from a partnership with it. That’s what every company is after also; a partnership with their customers.

There you have it…ten lessons any marketer or startup founder can learn from the Chapel Hill Police Department.

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