There are a growing number of use cases for social media. It seems there are new stories every day about the role of social media tools in crises (creating and responding to them), emergency commucation, breaking news, advocacy, activism, and the list goes on. Most of the stories seem to come from away.

I’m a collector of remarkable stories involving social media, particularly those which started in Canada. There are many including the Alberta wildfires, Naheed Nenshi’s election campaign, A Lung Story, #TellVicEverything and Idle No More . Last week I added a new story — a Canadian story. I learned about the use of Twitter by Montreal’s Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) during last year’s student protests.

IABC Ottawa hosted a professional development event with guest speaker Melissa Carol. Ms. Carol, a civilian member of the SPVM, took over the reigns of the SPVM’s Twitter account roughly two years ago when the woman who had been running it went on maternity leave.

Tough sell to senior management

Ms. Carol says bringing Twitter on board as a communication and public affairs tool wasn’t an easy sell to senior management at SPVM; or the public. Twitter use wasn’t common among police services at the time. Not everyone inside the Service believed in the use of Twitter nor understood the role it could play. The public, while curious, was suspicious. Ultimately, Twitter would prove to be the less scary among considered social media tools. It was chosen to help communicate with the public and demonstrate the human side of the SPVM (rather than serve as a marketing tool).

SPVM uses its Twitter account for a variety of reasons including to build trust with the public through ongoing exchanges, share safety tips and information on important events (including sporting events and concerts) and solicit public assitance in solving crimes.

Enter #manifencours

When Québec students began protesting a potential increase in tuition rates in February 2012, Ms. Carol saw an opportunity for the SPVM to become the credible source of information regarding demonstrations. Her goal for the SPVM was to provide credible information, be seen as active within the digital culture of the protest and to support police activities to improve safety for the protesters, police officers and the public.

She decided to:

  • live tweet protests and police activities
  • share details of police operations
  • communicate directly with students during the demonstrations
  • address misinformation and disinformation (rumour control)
  • monitor ongoing chatter
  • remain netural (something which was appreciated by the students)

Ms. Carol created the #manifencours hashtag to identify SPVM tweets about the demonstrations not knowing how big the demonstrations would become. In fact, #manifencours became the de facto hashtag about the demonstrations, adopted by the students, media and the public.

Despite challenges associated with intercepting and reducing the spread of rumours, SPVM was remarkably successful. Ms. Carol tells of one night when an estimated 10,000 student protesters took to the streets and were expected to turn their march headlong into oncoming traffic on a very busy street. When the students were met with a police blockade at the intersection in question, Twitter lit up with students expressing anger. Students in the middle and back of the pack began tweeting rumours they were hearing including speculation police officers were firing rubber bullets (they were not).

The situation was reaching a boiling point.

After a quick discussion with senior officers in the Command Centre, Ms. Carol began tweeting to the students using the #GGI hashtag (created by the students) to communicate with the protesters. She tweeted suggestions the student continue their march down a specific nearby road.

Student protesters began retweeting the suggestion. People following the protest online also retweeted the suggestion, encouraging the students follow the recommendation of the police. Amazingly, video surveillance displays in the Command Centre showed the students following the instructions. The demonstration continued “super calm” with no incidents, much to the surprise of deployed police officers including members of the SWAT team. The next day the still-surprised SWAT Commander asked Ms. Carol what she had done to turn the situation around.

No turning back

Ms. Carol joked at one point that once you start offering that level of awareness and engagement, you can’t go back. This is something she had never considered. This means that when SPVM doesn’t tweet about a particular event or activity, people connected to that event feel they’re not important enough to merit a mention on the police services Twitter account.

In the end, that’s probably the better problem to have.

Featured image: Place des Arts 22mai #manifencours #ggi #loi78 uploaded to Flickr by Heri R.