Canadian Internet media company Jugnoo (Sanskrit for “firefly,” or light from within) hosted Social Mix at Toronto’s Royal York hotel yesterday, gathering social media notables such as Amber Mac and Gary Vaynerchuk to impart their observations on how things are evolving in cyberspace circa end of July 2012. One of the best-received speakers was someone who at first glance wouldn’t appear to be a go-to social media guru: Sgt. Tim Burrows of the Toronto Police Service. While the talks of the other speakers and panellists focused largely on how to approach social media from the perspective of private business establishing a digital image for itself, Burrows’ challenge was somewhat unique – using social media to attempt to manage the image of an institution that from day one has been defined almost exclusively by others. In the West, our perceptions of the police have evolved, as Burrows’ presentation illustrated, from the idyllic image of Officer Friendly sharing a soda with a wide-eyed kid at the malt shop, through the steroid, napalm and inexhaustible ammunition-fueled antics of Dirty Harry and his cinematic descendants, to what was singled out as the worst offender in terms of creating unrealistic expectations, TV “reality” shows like Cops and procedurals like CSI. In his role with TPS, Burrows confronts attitudes forged by hyped-up media reports, Public Enemy songs and overactive imaginations and tries to reassure the community that behind the often contradictory mythology that has grown up around the blue is a group of human beings trying to do their jobs – human beings as prone to failure as the rest of us but expected at all times to be unflappable paragons of virtue – and looking to change the conversation to that level. It’s an important lesson for any public body looking to take the plunge into the digital space, particularly as the cost of ignoring that space means that it will be filled with exactly what you don’t want out there influencing people’s opinions of you.
Simon Sinek talks about how companies like Apple, even in the era that preceded the digital media wave we are riding now, crafted their brand loyalty not through the selling of a product, but the sharing of ideas and values that could be identified with by the consumer regardless of what product was being offered – why they do what they do. In his keynote, Gary Vaynerchuk expanded on this to boil success in social media down to a single concept – storytelling. In one of his many insightful anecdotes, Vaynerchuk described how every first-time customer of his wine business always received a personal follow-up thank you call. Frequently, he observed, the customer on the other end of the phone would wait awkwardly for the other shoe to drop – for an expected additional sales pitch, which never came. It was a money-loser and literally nothing more than a personal touch, with no sneaky attempt to generate revenue or leads or any other marketing shenanigans (as an aside, Vaynerchuk remarks with resignation that ultimately marketers ruin everything, as they will eventually ruin social media). For Vaynerchuk, the idea was to hearken back to the story of the old country general store where the clerk knew your name and could fill your order before you walked in – in essence, crafting a more human experience. It’s remarkable, although not totally surprising, that as the volume of information flow expands exponentially with each nanosecond and our attention span becomes more and more fractured, we crave that connection even more. Why else do we post pictures of our children on Facebook and share details of where we go and what we’re doing at every opportunity? Because it makes us feel human. And there is nothing so uniquely human as the story. Nothing else can move, engage or inspire us in quite the same way. In an era where almost everything is available by download, people still go out to the movies to share the experience of the story in the company of their peers. Sgt. Burrows is attempting to craft a story for the Toronto Police that establishes them as partners in peace, rather than jack-booted, fear-inducing authority figures; in other words, humanizing them.
What then, is the lesson for public entities looking to create a strong digital profile? The irony for organizations such as governments is that in a democracy people tend to treat their government like they do their appendix – ignore it unless it’s acting up. Using social media simply as an additional channel for press releases and official statements is certainly doomed to failure. The key question is how to create a story – and as any professional storyteller will advise, a great story starts with great characters, that is, the human beings at its heart. Public servants, like the police, have long been the collective whipping boy for everything that is wrong with government – the archetype of Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Minister, striving constantly to maintain the status quo and do as little as possible while reaping tax-funded pensions and keeping the people they ostensibly serve baffled by the process. (The news of former prime ministerial advisor Bruce Carson’s arrest for influence peddling today doesn’t help.) There is still, however, plenty of opportunity to try to start rewriting that narrative, emphasizing the responsibility and indeed the nobility of service. Government is uniquely positioned beyond any brand to be able to use social media to help craft a sense of community; for all the ballyhoo that private corporations do everything better, one is hard-pressed to find examples of corporations uniting neighbourhoods and instilling a sense of civic pride in the people who walk those streets. If government can become more personable, if it is able to let its humanity shine through, then the compelling story will write itself. People will become engaged in their government as everyday partners, not once-in-a-blue-moon voters, because they will care about where the story is going – and want to write themselves in as part of it. The ROI isn’t clicks and shares, but something far more precious: a healthier democracy and ultimately a more human place to live.