Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: PSNI's six risky years on Facebook and Twitter

No strategy, no trained staff, no idea who was responsible: Report highlights failings of PSNI social media

The PSNI boasts of over 1m social media followers.
The PSNI boasts of over 1m social media followers.
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

The PSNI operated its social media accounts for more than six years with no strategy, no guidance, untrained staff and no clear idea of who was responsible.

An internal report found management risked not following national policing guidelines and left the force open to reputational damage.

The PSNI is one of the biggest organisations in Northern Ireland on social media, with more than a million followers.

Police said that since the 2015 internal audit was completed there had been “a vast amount of work undertaken”, and a strategy had been put in place.

The PSNI said no other audit has taken place since, but the report’s authors were satisfied with changes made in a review a year on from their initial findings.

Police have been tweeting, liking and sharing posts since 2009, with a mixture of officers and civilian staff behind the content for accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.

The PSNI said its social media activity is “integral” to policing, allowing it to engage with communities, spread news quickly and effectively, and also gauge public opinion, allowing people to communicate issues directly to officers in their areas.

Auditors found some successes with using the online tools, saying it developed lines of communication with groups which historically the police had difficulty in engaging, but also found problems for the public in finding accounts relevant to their area.

The report, compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers, found “significant risks” and “serious gaps” in training in the PSNI’s social media use or how to measure its impact and success.

The report was obtained by the Belfast Telegraph after a Freedom of Information request.

At the time of the report, 250 officers and staff were posting content for 64 separate accounts, with 130 having received training, although records were incomplete. At the time the PSNI had 314,000 followers.

The report authors found a lack of defined roles and said responsibilities could present accountability issues and inconsistencies.

They described staffing levels as unsustainable and overly reliant on two officers who were likely to return to front line policing.

The report said there was a focus on “tactical application” and a lack of policy or procedural guidance for the management of the PSNI’s corporate social media use.

“This is important given the potential reputation risks associated with this form of media engagement and given the PSNI’s plans to increase the number of officers who will use social media,” the report said.

Just two officers monitored content regularly between the hours of 9-5, Monday to Friday, with no out-of-hours service. They also provided training and worked to ensure appropriate coverage across all districts.

National guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers recommend responding to posts — be they negative or positive — when possible as well as moderation of posts, as the PSNI is “legally responsible” for their content.

The audit said the “inconsistency” of the service at the time risked it not meeting those requirements.

The report recommended employing specialists and creating a strategy and purpose for social media activities.

While the then head of corporate communications acknowledged the risk, she pointed to financial pressures facing the police in terms of putting in place adequate staffing levels and training.

Today the PSNI has 32 Facebook pages, 22 Twitter accounts, an Instagram account and a YouTube channel.

“Our social media pages allow us to engage with communities, and quickly spread important information and news to a large number of people across Northern Ireland,” said Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton.

“Over the last few years social media has become an integral part of policing. It helps us to communicate directly to the public and by promoting the good work that we do, we can help to reassure them that we are keeping them safe.

“It is also a great way for the public to interact with us and let us know their thoughts, concerns and highlight any issues within their local area that we may not yet be aware of.”

The PSNI’s social media accounts are staffed by 414 users — all trained — and fall under the responsibility of the digital hub within the corporate communications department. That hub provides guidance and direction to social media users, who include police officers and staff from a number of different policing districts and departments.

“The digital hub works closely with district and department command teams to direct, govern and support social media use,” the PSNI said.

It said the hub, like other departments, had faced “resourcing challenges” such as restructuring, a voluntary exit scheme, promotion and secondments, but was now fully staffed.

“PSNI’s use of social media continues to evolve and as it does, our policies, procedure and governance also evolves,” the force added.

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