Dear Police et al: Your cutesy social media account is bad and foolish

The flood of fun memes, hot takes and utterly inane dog speak springing from the social media accounts of public organisations and corporates needs to stop, writes Anna Connell

Call me old, call me jaded, call me someone who enjoys the pain of shooting herself in the foot, but I don’t think every company or organisation needs to be on social media. If you want to argue that they do, then they don’t need to be doing cool fun memes, hot takes or using utterly inane dog speak like ‘doggo’, ‘paw-lease’ and ‘hecking’. I like dogs, I have one, he doesn’t talk because dogs can’t, don’t @ me about it.

I will happily wear the fun police moniker today because it’s actually the NZ Police social media presence that has set me off, drawing me out of my old crone’s cave to yell at the sky.

Kate Hawkesby’s column in the Herald about it got me out of bed yesterday morning, just like John Banks on the radio used to. Your eyes roll so far back in your head that you need to get up to see straight again.

Hawkesby’s column is in response to a Stuff article featuring Auckland University of Technology marketing lecturer, Marian Makkar, who warns that the Police’s Instagram popularity could be problematic. Makkar calls some of their posts ‘fluffy’. Hawkesby called her and any other critics of police social media activity ‘the fun police’ which is very clever.

Let’s ignore the fact that two of the experts quoted in the Stuff article make their money advising businesses and brands to be on social media (“Hello ice seller, we’re Eskimos, do we need ice?” “Yes, yes you do”) and focus on why I am not “down” with the fluffier approach we’re seeing on social media from institutions like the police.

In recent years the New Zealand Police have taken to social media in a big way. They’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn as a national presence and there are now many regional social media profiles as well.  They’ve had some smashers but lately it seems as if every second or third post is about the ‘paw-lease’ (the police dogs), or iterations on memes. I get it, dogs are very likable. My dog is more popular than I am on Instagram.

I’m usually reluctant to criticise a social media strategy from the outside. It’s impossible to know what the overall objectives might be; however, I think it’s fair to ask what the end goal of any social media strategy is these days.  Because social media is mainly quite stupid, and it seems that the way to thrive there as a brand or organisation is to pander to it even if that’s counter to the business you’re in. The tail is 100 percent wagging the dog and if I’m honest, my biggest objection to the cool fun content on an account like the Police’s, is that I’m sad to see venerable institutions reduced to having to perform like trained monkeys to get attention.

You could argue that by being entertaining they attract more followers and they can then serve their more serious messages to. This is good and clever social media strategy but honestly – is that what we’ve come to? Demanding the police be entertaining so we’ll pay attention? Seriously considering our driving behaviour as long as we get to see puppies again? The New Zealand Police aren’t here to entertain you, they’re here to serve you by keeping our communities safe and performing a pretty vital function within our justice system. Someone on Twitter suggested the entertainment content was necessary because why else would you follow them. At that point I just wept.

The Police argue it helps them “show what police were up to”. But does it really? So much of what the police do is awful, hard, dangerous, often gruesome, and heart-breaking work that requires painstaking attention to detail, integrity, force and authority. It’s not Instagram-friendly so instead we just see the fun, bright-side-of-life vignettes that paint a small, sanitised picture of the real work police do.

That small, sanitised, algorithm-friendly view, often whitewashes away controversy and soothes us into thinking that maybe we don’t need to maintain such  a robust and healthy grip on our rights to question powerful institutions.  There are many who still fear police and hold well-argued views about why they are wary of them. You could argue the relatable and fun police social media activity is a way to counter this fear but in the face of legitimate concerns about police power, it comes off as a bit glib.

Finally, Hawkesby says, “We live in a digital age.” Translation: “Get with it ya ol’ nana kill joys.” She says it’s business savvy to be there as it’s “the only media you own and you can control”. That was the point at which I lodged an eyeball into the base of my skull because it’s actually the number one example of a media you don’t own and don’t control. Facebook owns it and the masses run it.

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As a business, brand or organisation you surrender all control and ownership of your message to an unregulated wild west of algorithms, racists, bored people whose cats hate them, haters, criminals, paedophiles, vigilantes, people on Twitter, parents scared of Momo and other such frightening entities.

It’s not something to be taken lightly and it’s not any kind of silver bullet. It encourages short term reward over long term gain and there are plenty of reasons to raise an eyebrow at the morally dubious behaviour of the big social media companies and the behaviour they encourage in us. It’s a risky enough environment for me to question whether you should be entrusting a fast food brand to it, let alone the reputation and public perception of a vital community service like the Police.

So, call me the fun police but we don’t need fun police.

Anna Rawhiti-Connell is a marketing and communications consultant, writer and commentator who has had the misfortune of specialising in social media and digital marketing for 12 years.


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