Cities, Social Media, and PR Nightmares

Yesterday, two off-duty Bath Township police officers were arrested for their roles in a bar fight in Grand Rapids.

Also yesterday, the Bath Township Police Department posted this on their Facebook page:

"As many of you know, last night in Grand Rapids, two of our Officers were involved in an altercation which ultimately led to their arrest. We know the level of professionalism our community expects of us and we hold our officers to that same standard. This entire incident shines a negative light on not only our department but our community.

Both officers have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. We have policies and procedures in place for internal investigations and will make everyone aware when the investigation is complete and the legal process is carried out. Thank you."

Clear, transparent, and immediate, with a personal and professional level of apology.

"This is what happened today, we messed up, this is bad, and we're sorry."

Before I go on, here's some context:

The Bath Township Police Department's Facebook page is freakishly viral.

Almost all of their posts crack 4 thousand+ likes, comments, and shares, which means that each post is reaching more than 100,000 people.

77,000 people follow the page.

The last time it was counted, the population of Bath Township was 11,598.

It is also what many people who don't understand the language and purpose of social media would call "unprofessional", especially for a publicly-funded organization like a police department.

They make fun of everyone - people they arrest, themselves, their "rivals" the East Lansing Police Department, and people who put up their Christmas decorations too early. They relentlessly post memes, reference pop culture, and mark up every post with ridiculous hashtags.

So, what does police officers being arrested for a violent offense have to do with a Facebook page?

Nothing really, if you're someone who thinks that a meme is just a meme, jokes are just jokes, Facebook is "just Facebook", and, as someone in a leadership position here in Bay City said yesterday, "social media is the worst thing to ever happen to cities."

But if you see social media through the lens of its highest purpose - building relationships and connections between people - you'll be able to look at the comments that are being left on the Bath Township post and see that, even in times of public relations crisis like this, social media can be one of the best things to happen to a city.

As of 5:45am this morning, 494 comments were left on the post.

230 of them, or 47%, were positive and directly supporting the police department. The other half consisted mostly of people trying to find out what happened or posting their own jokes and memes.

A handful - and HANDFUL - were negative.

I've attached screenshots to this post of the comments so you can see for yourself, but here are some selections:

"Thank you for your professionalism in addressing this situation."

"We still respect the department as a whole."

"Thank you for your professionalism and addressing it. People make mistakes and must pay for them."

"As humans we all make bad choices and mistakes. As they have this time to reflect, I'm sure they are embarrassed and regret their actions. Thank you for your professional approach to this unfortunate incident."

"Thank you for your grace & humility in sharing such difficult news. My heart is broken for y'all because you are such a wonderful pd & we love & support you."

"Huge props for transparency."

"Your professional and transparency as a police force should be an example for others across the nation to follow. Whoever you have running social media, or have making the decisions in what you share on social media needs applause. Great work."

"Bath cops - you set the bar high for humanity. Iā€™m with you 100%."

If you're tuned into the locally-focused social media scene, you know it can be a scary, scary place. It can be a place where every rumor, unfounded information, and straight-up lies live, breathe, and play with unrestricted access to everyone in the community.

Police can't even turn on their sirens without someone making a post about it on a neighborhood watch page.

So I get why someone would say that "social media is the worst thing to happen to cities".

But here's a post, made by the police department, acknowledging that two of their own officers were arrested during a bar fight...and almost all of the comments were supportive.

Before we go on, the comments aren't supportive in a way that tries to excuse the negative actions of a police officer. No one is trying to spin the story. Almost all of the positive-biased comments acknowledge that the officers were wrong.

There wasn't a single post insinuating "Yeah, but what did the other guys do to deserve it?".

But almost all of the comments could be summarized as "this is bad news, they messed up and should face the consequences, but thank you for your transparency, and we still support the rest of the police department."

This is a crazy, almost unbelievable amount of humanity, forgiveness, and perspective happening on social media.


Because for a long time, the Bath Township Police Department has understood the language and purpose of social media. They get that humans connect through getting to know each other and humor and stories and openness. They understand the power in investing in a public relations platform like social media - that memes aren't just memes, jokes aren't just jokes, Facebook isn't "just Facebook, and that social media is one of the best things to happen to cities.

When I make a mistake in my marriage, my wife cuts me some slack (SOME slack šŸ˜‚) because we have a strong relationship. We've invested enough time, love, commitment and effort into each other that we understand our fallibility. When mistakes and failings happen, openness, transparency, and forgiveness allow us to move forward in a stronger way.

If I made the same mistakes with people I have a weaker relationship with, I'd be fired, unfriended, and subject to public shame.

The relationship is what determines what happens after the mistake.

When a public relations crisis hits a city that hasn't invested in creating strong connections and relationships with the people it serves, social media can ABSOLUTELY be the worst thing to happen to a city. It gives a platform and ripe opportunity for people to vent their frustrations from everything to their trash not being picked up to broken bridges to cracks in the sidewalk.

The relationship just isn't there.

But when a public relations crisis hits a city that HAS invested in creating strong connections and relationships, social media can be the BEST thing to happen to a city.

It becomes a platform for openness, transparency, discourse and support. Not functioning as a propaganda machine trying to spin a negative story, but a place where all that time, love, commitment and effort spent connecting with people and building relationships can pay off.

It can be a place where a city becomes a team, and that team can build a city.