Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Twitter is the Press Conference

While a significant amount of, duly earned, praise has been directed towards County Executive Ulman and Police Chief McMahon regarding how they handled the Columbia Mall shooting last month, I think there is one more person deserving our appreciation: @HCPDNews.  Whoever was manning the desk on January 25, 2014 - Thank You.  In the hours after seeing my Facebook feed fill up with anecdotal snapshots of the chaos, and our local news networks proceed with the day's scheduled infomercials as personnel scrambled into position, I found myself on the @HCPDNews Twitter page, clicking refresh.

An important aspect to remember as the facts of that day are smoothed over with time, @HCPDNews was not merely flushing out information.  They were interacting.  They were refuting false reports.  They even thanked people for offering encouragement and appreciation.  You could tell there was a human on the other side who, despite holding a strong front, was going through this with the rest of us.

Shortly after the events of January 25, I noticed a columnist from the Baltimore Sun comment on her Facebook page that she was disappointed the Howard County police issued details about the shooter via Twitter as opposed to a traditional press conference.  The premise of this critique is that such information should be available to the scrutiny of trained journalists for additional follow-up questions.  It was not until I saw that critique that I realized the "newness" of public safety social media.  If you want to stir people up, start getting rid of the middle men.

And that is an unfair characterization of our media brethren, but I can say that the mindset rejecting the issuance of news via a Twitter handle is the same one that requires my removal from the Local Blogs feed on the Baltimore Sun website once I declared for office.  I understand it.  I accept it.  But I don't agree with it.

Twitter is the press conference.  When the objective is to collect information in pursuit of a criminal investigation, standing live before a microphone comes after you've tapped the Twitterverse for additional leads.  Howard County officials may apologize and reassure traditional journalists, but they knew what they were doing.  And, if they're smart, they'll do it the same way next time.

Twitter, Facebook, and even White House Petitions present the frontier of figuring out a very important question about community engagement:  How do you engage the masses without overloading the conversation?  The good news is that the momentum is heading towards additional engagement.  The bad news is that we're not there yet.  If @HCPDNews was @NYCPDNews, I don't know if we could expect the same back and forth with other users.  The conversation would be overloaded.  But let's not pretend that technology shields the communicator from feedback.  Quite the opposite.

But to come back to my original point: Thank you, @HCPDNews.  You have done your community a tremendous service.  You are a trail-blazer.

That's all for today.  Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!  Make sure to get your milk and Berger Cookies! (We've got enough TP)