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Management Monday: "Policing Social Media" by Andy Carter

30 June 2014 | 02:03 am

This week's Management Monday blog is guest authored by Andy Carter, director of communications at Peterborough City Council and director of Be Ambitious, a PR and communications consultancy

"I’m an avid Radio 4 fan, even though, I might add, technically I’m not yet old enough to listen to it.

I find myself tuning in to programmes that even 10 years ago I wouPublic Relations Lecture with Andy Carter, Leeds City Council. Leeds Metropolitan University 19/10/09ld have had no interest in whatsoever.

Whole discussions about composers I know nothing about, but whose music I recognise; shows about statistics (what?) and this week, a programme about the law.

I’m not a lawyer, but as a former broadcast journalist and one time group news editor for a commercial radio company, the law had become my friend … and my enemy.

The law was a friend because I was able to use things like the Defamation Act, in my day-to-day work.  I knew what I could ‘get away with’ when reporting on the activities of people who were in the public eye (and some who weren’t).

But it could also be my enemy.  I once found myself standing in front of a crown court judge who was rather upset about how one of my radio stations had reported a complicated trial he was presiding over.

It’s fair to say that it was an experience I would not wish to repeat.

I don’t go on the radio anymore (‘hurrah!’ I hear you say) and in 2008 I started working in PR and communications.  I cut my teeth in local government public relations at Leeds City Council and have since worked for two local authorities and a university.

I’m currently in charge of my own company and, among other things, I run seminars on media law.  Strangely enough, I’ve taught groups of journalists and communications professionals in the last year.

You won’t be surprised that social media is now a major focus.  In the ‘old’ days I would tell my journalists how to stay safe on-air.  Now it’s “stay safe online”.

The Lord McAlpine case was a turning point for me (and others of course).  No longer was it possible to take to Twitter or Facebook and say what you thought (or in Sally Bercow’s case merely hint at something) without there being a consequence.

It was a wake up call for all of us: PR professional, journalist or man or woman in the street.

Social media was the focus of a recent Radio 4 ‘Law in Action’ programme.

It reported that increasing amounts of police time is now being spent investigating crimes that have ‘happened’ online.  It highlighted cases where bullying, harassment or trolling on Twitter or Facebook have become routine for detectives to look into.

The programme found, in some forces, more than half of cases passed to officers involved social media of some form.  Many, however, were “low level issues” of people mouthing-off.

One officer told the programme: "You don't need to actually front someone up face-to-face in the street to threaten them [anymore].  This can all be done from the comfort of your own home … people can commit crime anywhere to anybody."

Chief constable Alex Marshall, who’s in charge of the new College of Policing was interviewed by presenter Joshua Rosenburg.  He said his biggest problem is that experienced policemen and women – who were excellent investigators – knew nothing about social media and are struggling to get to grips with it.

Some have never heard of it, others don’t use it and few appreciate how integral social media has become to lots of people’s lives.

That’s why the college is now training 6000 officers to help them understand social media.  And that’s just the start of it.  These officers will be brought up to speed in “the next few months” according to Mr Marshall.

Yes, that’s right - social media has become such a conduit for crime, police officers now need to be taught how it works and what we do on it.  Who’d have thought?

I can’t decide whether that’s worrying or depressing.  Both perhaps?

Maybe the training needs to be aimed at social media users?  After all, someone needs to educate them about how the police aren’t there to resolve silly online skirmishes that are being played out from the relative ‘safety’ of the internet.

Of course, most of us – if asked about policing – would probably say ‘we’d like to see more bobbies on the beat please’.

I suggest there’s a fat chance of that happening if our local constables are stuck in their police stations hunched over computers checking to see whether a Twitter post, or a comment left on a Facebook wall, really was offensive.

Lives lived in an online world just crept a bit closerMind you, a friendly copper on the corner of a virtual street should be cheaper."

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