The #HoCoPolice and the #ColumbiaMall Shooting

Following crisis news in real time is nothing new. Orson Welles proved – at least in theory – in 1938, with his hour-long radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, that releasing news incrementally as events unfold is a gripping way to inform the public by creating a narrative. War of the Worlds was fiction, but there are plenty of factual historical instances of people being transfixed by the news.

Many of us remember being glued to CNN for hours on end at the beginning of the first Gulf War. Green screens and footage of smart bombs are the first thing I think of when I remember that time.

I learned about the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing, in Oklahoma, as people from throughout the Hale Boggs Federal Building, in New Orleans, began filtering into our public affairs office – we had a bank of televisions that we used for media monitoring and they were all quickly tuned into the coverage of that other federal building.

Take any communications or journalism college intro course and you’ll get a lesson in the advantages and disadvantages of each news medium. Since its inception, broadcast has had the advantage of immediacy. However, Internet-based news has taken immediacy and combined it with mobility, variety and interaction to create uber versions of traditional news mediums.

I don’t make it a habit to follow tragic events as they develop via social media – there’s just too many nowadays and, as a reformed news junkie, I feel the constant barrage can have a desensitizing effect (at least on me.) There are exceptions, though.

A teenage gunman entered Maryland’s Columbia Mall, on the outskirts of Baltimore, the morning of Jan. 25 and opened fire, killing two people, then himself. My interest was piqued for several reasons: I’ve spent many months of my life at nearby Fort Meade and have spent time in that mall, and I have friends that live in towns adjacent to Columbia.

One of the first tweets I saw was the one embedded at the top of this page. It was a retweet from someone else I follow, but I quickly followed the Howard County Police Department’s account. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would spend that day on the edge of my seat waiting for each update.

I followed initially just because of the “PIO en route” phrase in that first tweet (PIO is an acronym for public information officer). Someone was about to do something I’ve done – use social media to provide a narrative from the field during a crisis (I managed the Coast Guard’s official social media accounts in New York City from 2009 to 2012. I wasn’t always the tweeter/poster, but oversaw the operation. I also spoke about the topic as a member of a panel at SXSW last year.)

Within the first hour of the narrative I realized this was an organization doing it right. Regular updates, only verified facts, information that people could use and it wasn’t being filtered by a third party.

I was working on the content bank for our new site during the Columbia Mall incident. I spent the day writing and doing research for short spans of time, then switching over to the #HoCoPolice feed to get the latest. When my wife and I went out for the evening I’d steal frequent glances at my mobile app to keep up. This was  being done so well – textbook, in fact – that my professional curiosity got the best of me.

Paul and I write about crisis plans frequently on this blog (well, we will) so I had to know what the drivers were for the Howard County Police Department’s success with social media during a crisis. Here’s a short Q & A I conducted, via email, with the department’s Director of Public Affairs, Sherry Llewellyn:

brandon brewer: Generally speaking, who manages your various social media platforms and what training and qualifications do those people have, from an organizational standpoint?

Sherry Llewellyn: I manage social media for the police department as one element of my job.  My title is director of public affairs and I report to the chief of police.  The HCPD does not have a “social media manager,” whose sole job it is to oversee social media.  I have a journalism degree from the University of Maryland and have worked throughout my career in media relations.

bb: What does leadership in your organization think of the impact you may have via social media? Has support from leadership always been there, or has it grown?

SL: Our police chief, William McMahon, recognizes the power of social media to share accurate information quickly with the public and the media.  Our other commanders also view social media as a good supplement to our traditional communication methods.  Support for social media among our leaders has grown, and continues to grow.

bb: How do you measure your effectiveness with your social media use?

SL: During the recent shooting incident at the Columbia Mall, our Twitter followers quadrupled.  That indicates to us that we are effectively communicating with the public and traditional media.

bb: How do you use specific social media platforms? Do you concentrate certain types of content based on Twitter, Facebook or other platforms?

SL: We use Twitter and Facebook. Some information is duplicated, but during a crisis, Twitter is the first place we turn.  We make a point to update on FB, as well.

bb: Run me through a day like that of the incident at the Columbia Mall. Please describe what happens “behind the scenes” to gather, verify and release information via social media – specifically, your Twitter feed.

SL: Due to tight working conditions in the command post, I was the only PIO on-scene.  In this incident, Police Chief McMahon and I worked side-by-side for the duration.  We would receive updates from investigative commanders in scheduled internal briefings, and then determine what could be released at each stage without interfering with the investigation.

I had a second employee at home monitoring Twitter and Facebook.  Our goal was to dispel any incorrect information that others may have been posting, and to do our best to respond to reasonable questions. She stayed in regular contact with me via texting.

We used social media in conjunction with traditional communication outreach, including live press briefings and periodic written press releases.

Sherry also sent me a copy of her department’s written social media strategy, which succinctly spells out the power of social media and provides guidance for using it during the crisis and non-crisis events the department manages. The agency’s framework for social media use consists of five major directives:

  1. Provide news updates about crimes, suspects, incidents, other emergencies and noteworthy arrests.
  2. Provide information about police department initiatives, policies and accomplishments directly to followers, reducing the agency’s dependence on mainstream media.
  3. Disseminate safety and crime prevention information.
  4. Promote police department programs and events.
  5. Provide citizens with access to official HCPD information on-the-go, anywhere, anytime via mobile phones and other devices.

An editorial in The Baltimore Sun a week after the Columbia Mall tragedy sums up the agency’s success: “Under stressful circumstances, Howard County police might have become a model for other departments in how to communicate during a crisis.” The Howard County Police Department provides exceptional lessons learned for strategic crisis communications planning and the tactical implementation of those plans.

Here’s the department’s Twitter feed from the day of the mall shooting and the morning after. I’ve only omitted a few tweets. A powerful narrative.

6 thoughts on “The #HoCoPolice and the #ColumbiaMall Shooting

  1. Thanks for the well deserved kudos for HoCoPolice. You are right that this unfortunate event can be a template for social media outreach among first responder/public safety agencies!

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    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Ed! Writing about something like this requires that balance between respecting the tragedy for what it was, but also recognizing that people worked hard to keep the public safe and informed, especially when this situation was still in progress. The key takeaways for me with this short study: be ready (although, I’m partial to a certain organization’s “Semper Paratus” – Always Ready) and stick to your plan.

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  2. Some speculation at 9:36 a.m. and 7:50 p.m., but great, timely info in what must have been in a hectic and dynamic situation. Great job, @HCPDNews! P.S. Keep up the good work, @crisis_comms!

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  3. Reblogged this on News Of PR Interest and commented:
    The shooting incident at the Columbia Mall provided exceptional lessons learned for strategic crisis communications planning and the tactical implementation of those plans. In this interview with the Director of Public Affairs of Howard County Police provides an insight of how a very small staff can effectively reach a very large audience by providing timely and useful information.

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    • Thanks for the re-blog and the comments, Franco! Also, good that you pointed out that everything done during the incident was a small staff — only two people. Many of the PIOs I’ve met are either the sole spokesperson for their organization, or are part of a very small office.

      Liked by 1 person

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