Three Years of Social Media: Marketing Lessons Learned

Multimedia Wall from Crestock Creative Images

By Leonard Sipes and Timothy Barnes

See for “DC Public Safety” radio, television and transcripts.

This is the seventh article in a series on podcasting and social media. The purpose is to explain social media and to attempt to “cut through the clutter” and offer an understanding of effective methods.

We were one of the first federal agencies to engage in social media and a large number of government, criminal justice and nonprofit agencies have come to us for advice and guidance.

This article summarizes what we’ve learned about marketing our four federal social media websites, our friend’s sites and our assistance to government, non-profit agencies and national organizations.

We may use terms that some of you are unfamiliar with (happens to me everyday). Please go to The Common Craft store on YouTube provides simple explanations for many additional terms. Please do not be put off by their simplicity. Sometimes, simplicity is just what you need to learn or to explain terms to others.

Some Background

Social media is an internet based effort to give customers interesting material so they have a better understanding as to what your agency is or does. Customers read, watch or listen to your offerings and respond; thus giving the agency the feedback it needs to accomplish operational goals.

The key word is “social.” You have an on-line conversation with your customers. You offer content that’s compelling; they offer their opinions or provide needed information. Social media is today’s focus group.

An example would be a law enforcement agency providing Twitter or Facebook messages about burglaries and “customers” respond with suspect information. You Tweet-you arrest–you accomplish your objectives.

Another example would be a national association or nonprofit providing really interesting video, audio and fact sheets backed-up by Twitter and Facebook accounts. You provide compelling content; you interact with tens of thousands of new people who join and financially support the organization.

Social media accomplishes operational goals. We’re not doing this to be interesting or informative; we’re doing it to advance the mission of the organization. There are endless corporations doing it to both serve customers and improve their bottom-line.

The Reality

It sounds so simple but the reality is anything but. Those entering social media have expressed considerable dismay regarding the complexity and work required and they have every reason to express concern.

Social media is like a dog-fight; it’s quick and furious and confusing. Those inhabiting the internet can be sophomoric and crude – they can also be insightful and informative. It’s like having a party for thousands of people where some bring something to contribute and some get obnoxious and loud.

For those who like things nice and tidy, social media is not for you. For those who like to get things done, well, the reality is that social media is a daily and ongoing process.

Two Kinds of Social Media Efforts

Keep in mind that there are two kinds of social media efforts. Some sites are static. You do your best to create really interesting content; you update that content and have a method for customers to contact staff–that’s it. I suggest that most of you start with a static site and gradually move towards more frequent postings.

Dynamic social media can and often does mean daily or frequent creation of content. Every day (or fairly often) you are offering new material (often referred to as a blog) or a great video or television show or a dynamite audio or radio product or an analysis of someone’s work.

People come to your site because you frequently post new material. People will come to your site often because they like what you do. You end up with thousands of contacts every week or month that may join your association, contribute money or tell you want you need to know to improve operations.

Your association goes from little influence to an adequately funded national source of information on the subject you care about.  But getting there involves a price in time and money and there are many who are justifiably unwilling to pay the price. Most drop out of the process of daily or frequent postings. It’s simply too confusing and time consuming.


Through this article, we want to end some of the confusion. We assume that you have a website and it’s has some really interesting content and you have methods for your customers to contact you. You are dedicated to conversations that get people to interact with you.

Posting daily (or frequent) content is marketing and may be the best form of reaching people. But content does not have to be long or complex; it can be a couple paragraphs about a new initiative or recent research or data from another organization (virtually all government data is public domain). The bottom-line is that it’s interesting and informative. People like it.

But most bureaucracies hamper writers or other content creators with a lot of control that discourages someone who wants to write or create. Your management need to understand that content creation needs a simple approval process.

We need to get beyond what we were taught in school about writing; material for the internet needs to be short (200-400 words) and it needs to get to the point quickly. It should be completely free of jargon. It should be light and breezy. It should “sound” like a person talking to someone. The use of bullets is encouraged. Telling a story is key.

Internet readers skim rather than read. They will spend a minute or two on your site and move on.

What’s the minimum number of new material you can get away with? Two short articles a week or one audio or video program a week.

Don’t Kill Yourself with Options

The internet is filled with thousands of strategies for improving your site or improving your search engine optimization (SEO). People go crazy trying to know and understand them all. What you need to know:

* Create sites with great content that’s easy to find and easy to explore.

* Good sites get visitors to create links back to your site (people placing an address on their site that points back to yours).  Links are like a vote of confidence. Search engines send traffic partially based on the number and quality of links.

* Spend ten minutes a day asking similar sites to link to you (as you will link to them). Spend time on their site. Interact. See what they are doing right.

* Use key words in the title and throughout the article. If people are searching for material on crime prevention, having those words in the article helps them find it.

* Use a blogging platform that allows you to add key words and descriptions in the background so search engines have more to access.

* Everything else is close to unnecessary.

Advertise by Posting your Material on National Social Media Sites

Posting material from your website to additional websites gives your material greater exposure and creates links back to your site. You either manually submit material or the site automatically picks up your RSS feed

You don’t need to manually submit your material to a lot of sites. At this writing, Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon and possibly Reddit seem to work best for non-profits and government agencies. Note that every organization will discover for themselves what works best, but many doing social media are posting their content in too many forums. It’s exhausting.

Some of the big social media sites don’t like our content.  Social media likes technology, politics, and entertainment. Most of the big sites don’t have categories for the material we offer. Some of the people I’ve assisted have sites rejecting their material calling it spam, especially when it’s frequently posted. They willingly embrace something weird or wacky but reject research-based posts that contribute to the social good. Many sites reject insertions of links in articles regardless as to worthiness. You include a link to a great government report and they reject it as spam.

There are blogging sites like Blog Catalog that automatically pick your new material via your RSS feed. Search the internet for “free blog catalogs.” MySpace, Blogged. OnToplist are additional examples of sites willing to carry your RSS feed.

Warning – when you interact with Facebook and Twitter you are creating new websites that have to be maintained to be successful and Facebook is a confusing platform. But Twitter and Facebook are developing new search and linking capacities that may make them indispensible.  Google Buzz and Google Me (forthcoming) may evolve into a useful method to exchange information. All need to be approached with caution, especially as they apply to privacy.

Video and audio?

Doing a short (one to two minutes) audio or video post on a new subject and posting it on your site and YouTube takes minutes to do. A gazillion 14 year-olds do it every day.

There are high-definition flip video cameras that cost less that $200.00 (many closer to $100.00) that will allow almost instant creations and posting to your site and/or YouTube.

Please note that internet users (and all learners) want a variety of formats; there are people who would rather watch or listen than read.

Does it have to look like the evening news or sound like National Public Radio?

Nope. Believe it or not, people like their internet offerings unpolished. I’ve read articles about the hours some people spend editing audio or video. It’s our experience that people like it genuine.

Different audiences with different needs

ProBlogger ( asks “What problems are you solving for your audience?” Well, you start your site seeking an audience interested in crime or teaching or social change and you get people interested in segments of your topics. They aren’t teachers, but you start getting traffic about the most effective methods of helping kids with homework. And you find that this topic is the most frequent request. You reach out to people in the criminal justice system and end up with scads of people wanting to know how to pick the safest neighborhoods to live in.  The internet has two different audiences, your targeted professionals and everyone else. You will find that demand may move your site in unanticipated directions.

Dot Gov or Dot Org – the Google Sandbox

Search engines like Google like government sites so if that applies to you, get a dot-gov as part of your domain name (address for your site).

For those of you who have associations, woe be unto you. Google and the other search engines distrust new websites and will not send you traffic until your sites ages (at least a year) and you have a sufficient number of links (100). Most successful sites are a minimum of two years old and have hundreds of really good links

That means that you will create all that great content and few will see it during the first year or more, but they will see it later when Google starts sending you greater amounts of traffic (be sure to make it easy to find via key words, categories, etc.).

One more item to consider; Google and the other search engines do not have the ability to judge the quality of sites. I’ve seen sites that haven’t posted material in years with inaccurate content rank higher than great but new sites with wonderful content because the competing site is older and carries many links.

Old Sites

If you have an older site, please develop your social media effort within that site; don’t start a new site.

Why? I assisted a national criminal justice organization that had a website for the last ten years and they were not aware that had hundreds of high-quality links. All they had to do was create new content and use keywords within that content (keywords are the words-phrases people are searching for).

They went from being un-findable to quickly going to the top of the list on Google searches (for those keywords) all because that added relevant content (with key words) and posted frequently and were willing to interact with their “customers.”

Interacting with Customers

Don’t worry about the time you need to spend with people who react to your sites. Develop fact sheets on all of your main content areas and use the fact sheets to respond. Most people using our sites simply complement us on our efforts. But when they offer information you can use, thank them. When they offer good information or criticism, interact with them; ask them what it is that they need or get clarification. It’s important to your mission.

Sites with Movement

Don’t develop sites with extensive and annoying Flash (software presenting motion). Keep it simple. Users want simplicity and quick access. Big corporations use Flash but they can get away with it. You want to keep your site relevant to the needs of users.  In addition, the computer industry is currently moving away from Adobe Flash-based technology, which is proprietary, to the new HTML Version 5 open standards.

We’ve all seen sites created entirely in Flash. But the search engines can’t search Flash or photographs; search engines only recognize words. All their efforts to become a presence on the internet were doomed to failure because no one could find their site unless they already knew the address (URL).

Finding People to Interact With or Market to–Facebook

For many of us, finding our key audience is very challenging. For me, finding people interested in criminal justice related issues is very hard unless you have the budget to advertise in publications or websites.

People who represent issues that are popular and who use the internet frequently have a much easier time finding like-minded individuals or organizations. There are people interested in topics like technology, religion or politics that use the internet frequently.

But if you are looking for cops, firefighters, teachers or plumbers, how do you find your audience?

Facebook offers the most interactive web presence on the internet. They now have hundreds of millions of daily users (500 million users total) who stay on the site longer than any other. Facebook claims to drive more people to websites than Google.

Facebook gives you two options, developing a “page” (for businesses and organizations) and developing a “profile” site organized by an individual’s name. Please note that as I write this, Facebook is making changes and may offer a new kind of presence for organizations.

A Facebook page almost seems to be a questionable option. You can open a Facebook page and use your key term but that term will be buried by all the organizations that have come before you. You could be “the” authority in your field, but everyone who came before you will come first in the Facebook search regardless as to the worthiness of content. In essence, people can’t find you.

Every major corporation has a Facebook page and thousands of people become fans of that page, but for us it does not seem to work nearly as well as a Facebook profile.

Creating a Facebook site using the name of a trusted person within your organization is the way to go. That person creates the site and asks others who have the same interests to be their friend.

Once they have accepted your offer to be your friend, you have access to everyone else who are their friends and you contact them as well. Soon you could have thousands of people representing thousands of organizations similar to yours creating a mechanism to interact.

But beware that Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz and similar sites also get you many who have no interest in your topic. They sign up or agree to be your friend solely to market to you. It’s part of the price for doing social media. There are people who feel that their Facebook and Twitter efforts produce a lot of garbage. Out of every 100 people who follow you, maybe 20 are really interested in what you have to say. Don’t be afraid to delete the rest.


All federal government agencies are required by section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act to make their websites accessible to handicapped individuals.  This means that all video must be closed captioned and transcripts for audio and video programs must be provided in addition to the program.  Websites should also be compatible with “machine readers” which speak the content of websites for those who are visually impaired.  Many state and local governments as well as corporations have similar regulations or policies.  Make sure you are aware of any legal or policy requirements regarding accessibility and plan them into your social media strategy.

In summary, these are the most important ingredients to marketing a social media site:

* Choose your strategy – a static site or one with frequent postings.

* A simple word-based website. Leave the fancy graphics to General Motors

* Use a  dot-gov address whenever possible

* Build your social media presences within the framework of an older, existing site

* Have a content approval process that works quickly.

* Ad material frequently

* Post what your audience wants

* Make it very easy to find (create categories – post categories at the top of your site)

* Post material in a variety of formats (audio, video, fact sheets, and story-based articles)

* Place your content on Facebook, Stumble Upon and Twitter (or the sites that work best for your audience). Don’t worry about the endless options.

* Create fact sheets on key topics to respond so you won’t feel overwhelmed by user requests.


We understand that some people feel that all of this is simply too much when it occurs in conjunction with existing jobs. You’re right, it is. For those of you who choose a great static site, good for you. Make it the best.

But for the remaining the question is exposure. Would you rather have 10,000 people interested in what you do come to you and spend two minutes a day being exposed to your material? Most corporations would love to have that interaction.

Just remember that speed, relevancy and interest rules the internet. Most organizations move with the speed of a wounded snail thus taking them out of contention. The question remains, are you willing to talk to millions or are you willing to concede the opportunity to others? For local governments, nonprofits and national associations, this becomes a defining issue.  For some of us, it becomes a matter of public safety or national security.


Three Years of Social Media-Lessons Learned

web signs post from Crestock Stock Photos

Article offered by the Community Policing Dispatch, COPS Office, US Department of Justice, January 2010.

Social media sites are popping up everywhere as more and more agencies are starting to incorporate them into their media outreach efforts. We created our federal social media site 3 years ago, and believe that the site has provided concrete benefits to our agency. At this writing, we are averaging 200,000 requests a month. Here are some of the “lessons learned” that have been derived from our collective experience:

What is Social Media?

There is no formula or specific definition for a successful social media strategy; it depends entirely on your circumstances and what you want to accomplish. The heart of the philosophy of social media is the willingness to interact with your customers to establish a dialog. It’s an even exchange; you give them neat and interesting content and they give you information to improve what you do.

Management Directives

Your managers state that they want to enter the social media world and have directed you to do it. But do what, and who will do everything necessary? Are they interested in a blog? Do they want video and audio? Are they interested in photos? Do they want a presence on Facebook and other social media sites? Who will respond to questions?

The bottom-line is that management needs to figure out what it wants and what it’s prepared to spend. They also need to know that it’s impossible for one person to do everything necessary for a successful site.

Who Creates Web sites?

Web sites are created by a variety of people with a mix of skills. Here are the skill sets necessary to create a web site:

  • Web site creation (designers and coders)
  • Web site population (posting relevant materials)
  • Web site marketing
  • Writing for web sites.

The problem is that there are few individuals who possess all those skills. Reliance on less than well rounded talent becomes painfully evident the more we visit emerging web sites. But the sad truth is that few web specialists have all the skills necessary to build a successful site. The lesson is that dependence on one person to create and manage a web site may not work.

What Do You Want Your Web site to do?

If you want a static web site that will never or rarely change and if you’re not interested in using the site to market your agency or engage people, you have just hit the jackpot. These sites require little maintenance. However, if you want the site to promote the agency and its agenda and if you want to interact with your customers/citizens (the heart of social media) then you have entered an entirely different world.

Marketing through social media means an endless effort to create new content that serves your customer/citizen base. The idea is a continual interaction with the people you want to reach, thus a constant flow of new products. The production of video, audio, blogs or other items requires dedication and resources.

Social media means having people to create products. Writing for the web or media production for the web must be appropriate. You’re not writing for academic journals. Web creation must be friendly, engaging in content and style and approachable. You have to make it easy for people to get the information they need.

Marketing Your Site

This is the essence of many unsuccessful sites, no one knows you exist. Suggestions:

  • Create a great site that users will find interesting and engaging.
  • Establish your key words, the words that will attract people. What are the key words or phrases that will attract people to your site?
  • The address (URL) title and description should contain your key words. This may be “the” most important factor leading to success in marketing your site.
  • Your key words need to be integrated into your postings.
  • Create e-mail marketing lists.
  • Create Twitter marketing lists.
  • Ask for links or create content that other people will feel compelled to link to. Links are like votes of confidence in the value of your site. The more links you have, the better your ranking is for key search terms. The better your ranking, the more people will find your site.
  • Leave helpful comments in relevant blog posts with your web address (thus creating a link to your site).
  • Create pages in the top 25 social media sites (i.e., Facebook, YouTube, etc.) and post to them often.
  • Ask other sites to include your site in its offerings. Ask major blog directories to include your blog.

We believe that web development and marketing must be seen in the context of the long run. It’s impossible to do all this in a series of days or weeks or months. We do marketing every day and take it in small bites. We do it as time allows, but it gets done.

Answering Questions

You will find that it’s not nearly as bad as some make it out to be. I discovered this when marketing a national media campaign. We were the best known public service campaign in America; but few contacted us for an elaborate discussion, most wanted a quick answer to a question or a had suggestion to offer.

If you have prepared materials your burden will be relatively small. But the heart and soul of social media is personal interaction when asked. I do not hesitate to pick up the phone and call the person. We need to know what others think of us and our services.

New and Shiny Things

One of the biggest mistakes people new to social media make is chasing every new and shiny thing that comes down the pike. There are some people (including us) who cannot leave good enough alone. If you developed your blog or web site with WordPress, then you have an endless array of themes, widgets and plug-ins to choose from. I wasted many, many hours looking at new applications that in the long run meant little to nothing to the quality of my site. Stick to basics. You have enough to worry about. Create a site that serves your users and move on.


Find the best resources. Go to the big retail outlets on the web that specialize in books. Search for books that describe themselves as basic or for newcomers or for “dummies.” They will take the time to offer explanations for people without social media backgrounds. Search for “social media” or “˜podcasting” or “blogs” or “marketing.” Do not get anything that assumes prior knowledge.

There is another source for related terms such as social media, Twitter, podcasting, etc. called the Common Craft store on YouTube. It provides simple explanations for these and many additional terms. Please do not be put off by their simplicity. Sometimes, simplicity is just what you need to learn or to explain terms to others.


Your IT people may object to the use of internal servers due to security issues of lack of capacity. Using outside web site hosting companies, which can start at approximately $10.00 a month, can put an end to objections.


Search engines do not like change, and you may pay a temporary price in search visibility. But you may find that your original plan doesn’t work or you see a need to take the site in a different direction. It’s a normal part of the process. Make your changes to the site and marketing efforts as soon as practical and move on.


There are endless additional considerations when creating social media sites and there are existing materials that address them. But most issues seem to fall into the categories discussed:

  • Management needs to know what they want to do and provide resources. There is no single definition of a successful social media strategy.
  • Establishing your key words at the beginning and integrating them into every aspect of your site is crucial.
  • You can’t expect one person to create, populate, write for and market your web site. The necessary skills are often beyond the capacity of one person alone. You may be great at writing code but marketing and web writing and document creation is foreign to you, yet all are necessary skills.
  • You and your managers need to understand the purpose of a social media site. Static sites have their place (but it’s diminishing). Interactive sites require resources or they will not work.
  • Market your site in bits you can deal with. We market every day. We do not try to take on the entire marketing effort at one time.
  • Unless you are J.C. Penney, you will not spend every waking moment of your professional life answering questions. But spend time with inquiries that cannot be answered simply. They often provide more in insight than you provide in terms of information.
  • Don’t chase every new “shiny thing” that comes along. Most are time wasters.
  • Get the right (basic – very basic) reference materials.
  • Bandwidth is no longer an issue if you hire outside companies to supply it.
  • Change is normal. Make your changes as soon as possible in the development process.

-Timothy Barnes
-Len Sipes

The authors are public affairs and IT specialists at an independent Federal agency


Using Social Networking to Reach the Public

From’ “Community Policing Dispatch,” ‘ August, 2009, US Department of Justice

In world history there have been few fundamental shifts in how people move through society, but right now such a shift is occurring. For centuries, people were introduced and became connected face-to-face. Today social media outlets provide unparalleled levels of information sharing and social networking. Nielson Media reported that “the number of social media users has increased 87 percent since 2003, and surpassed e-mail use for the first time in February” and “in the past year, the time spent on social networks increased 73 percent” according to a May 2009 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Though research indicates that a well-crafted social web site (catering to learning styles – friendly with story-based articles fact sheets and interesting video and audio) can have a huge impact, the nature of that impact can have either a tremendously useful or dangerously detrimental effect.

If an event occurs, word travels the Internet instantaneously. With new technologies and cheap bandwidth, anyone with a basic understanding of website creation and search engine optimization can produce a site in mere hours. Cameras and software can shoot and lift video to You Tube in minutes. The danger is that an organization devoted to misinformation might control public opinion faster and better than a public agency.

San Antonio police encountered this problem when an impostor set up a fake San Antonio Police Department account. Though mostly harmless, the twitterers (as Twitter account holders are known) used the official seal of the police department on their page and posted law enforcement themed-tweets (Twitter posts). Although the department successfully had the account removed from Twitter, their experience illustrates the potential dangers in the new era of information sharing. If the department had already made their own official Twitter, the fake account would never have deceived the citizens of San Antonio. Thus, having social networking account can prevent risks to public safety.

Additionally, social networking sites allow government agencies to reach out to their public like never before. Story-based articles, fact sheets, audio and video provide users with a personal, comfortable and meaningful experience. In the words of a writer for Advertising Age Magazine, “Brands need to have a personality and be someone that people want to be friends with.” Law enforcement agencies are all brands, and in many cases their images could be improved. Police departments are increasingly creating Facebook and Twitter accounts to reach their public in new ways. The personal profile elements of Facebook give a human quality to departments by listing personal interests and favorite quotes and allowing members of the public to be-“friend” them. Meanwhile the limited text and mass broadcast of Twitter posts allow agencies to keep their citizenry informed up-to-the-minute. As Lakeland, Florida’s Assistant Police Chief Bill LePere told CNN. “Expecting the local print media to pick [a tradiotional media release] up and run it in the newspaper tomorrow is 24 hours too late.” reports that “public safety officials are finding the use of sites to be not only speedy but a convenient way to distribute press releases, amber alerts, road closings, and suspect descriptions.” Twitter accounts provide users with major updates in 140 characters or less and links to more detailed information can be posted as well. Better yet, sites offer a free avenue for disseminating information in a tough economic climate. Thanks to advertising, neither the twitterer or the follower need to pay for the communication thereby eliminating cost barriers that might otherwise prevent valuable information spreading.

The experiences of police departments from Boston, Massachusetts to Chatanooga, Tennessee (both of which have Twitter accounts) illustrate that social media can be of great value to law enforcement agencies. Social media sites are a perfect outlet for community policing as they allow for both outreach and prevention. Websites provide social tools that let agencies communicate with and engage their public. By forming even casual electronic relationships with residents, departments are able to improve their status and stature within the community. Furthermore sites like Twitter and Facebook provide a private forum for members of the community to communicate valuable information about a suspect or simply their public safety concerns to the police. Information sharing with the public has always been a priority of law enforcement. Yet never before has opportunity for a direct dialogue with the public existed on such a vast scale. Social media enables agencies to accomplish preexisting operational goals by facilitating the transfer of specific and targeted information in efficient and innovative ways.

Leonard Sipes
Special Contributor

Meghan Burns
Special Contributor
The COPS Office


Using Social Media to Protect Public Safety

Please see for “DC Public Safety” radio and television programs
Please see for the web site for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency

DC’s Fugitive Safe Surrender Prompts 530 Offenders with Warrants to Voluntarily Surrender in a Church

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Edited by Cedric Hendricks

It’s not easy to understand why anyone with a warrant would voluntarily surrender to law enforcement. But I spoke to many offenders during an event in the nation’s capitol who told me that they were looking for a safe opportunity to turn themselves in. They wanted another chance to return into normal society.

But they and family members needed to learn about the program and be convinced that it wasn’t a scam. We had to earn their trust. We did that through social and conventional media efforts. This may have been one of the first efforts on the part of a federal agency to use social media during a campaign.

The thrust of this article is not Fugitive Safe Surrender in Washington, D.C. ( but an overview of the possibilities that social media affords the criminal justice community. By social media, I’m referring to radio and television on the Internet (podcasting), articles on the Internet (bloging) combined with more traditional efforts such as web site creation, a telephone answering system, e-mail and radio and television ads.

Fugitive Safe Surrender in DC

Before we delve into social media we need a quick overview of Fugitive Safe Surrender in Washington:

The effort encouraged those wanted for non-violent felony or misdemeanor crimes in the District of Columbia to surrender voluntarily to faith-based leaders and law enforcement in a church. Fugitive Safe Surrender recognizes that many offenders are looking for a way out. The program provides an opportunity for individuals wanted for non-violent offenses to resolve their warrants and get on with their lives. Surrendering within the confines of a church (or other religious entity) provides the assurance that they will be treated safely and fairly.

Fugitive Safe Surrender (FSS) was successfully implemented by the US Marshals Service in six cities where over 6,000 people surrendered. Those participating generally go home that day with a new court date or have their charges adjudicated on the spot. Violent offenders (yes, they surrendered as well) are held for trial.

The entire criminal justice community in D.C. came together to create the structure for FSS. I was asked to lead the public information effort.

530 offenders with violent and non-violent warrants surrendered in a church in northeast Washington D.C. over the course of three days during November of 2007. There was extensive media coverage.

Social Media

Explaining why an offender would voluntarily surrender is easier than explaining social media. Social media is more a philosophy rather than a list of strategies.

One of the lead agencies for FSS was my agency, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in Washington, D.C (a federal, executive branch entity). We do a series of radio and television programs under the banner of “DC Public Safety” at The program includes a blog (articles) and transcripts. Some consider it the most popular criminal justice radio and television Internet site in the nation.

But the use of radio or television or blogs or transcripts or any other form of social media is not the point; they exist to create a comfortable experience for the user. People learn in a wide variety of formats. Some want to read while others want to listen or watch. For those who want to read, it’s preferable that the document be “story based” with an emphasis on enjoyment and readability. Audio and video programs need to follow the same philosophy.


The criminal justice system, like all bureaucracies, is usually conservative when it comes to news ways of communicating. As someone who has spent close to 30 years in communications for national and state criminal justice agencies, I understand the complexities and resource limitations.

Social media opportunities available for criminal justice agencies are enormous and very cost effective. Radio shows for the Internet (podcasting) can be done for cost of a computer and an additional $500.00 for equipment and broadband access. Once purchased, you have almost unlimited opportunities to communicate with a local and national audience without additional cost.

The primary objective of social media is a personal, non-bureaucratic style of communicating that respects various learning styles and encourages the development of conversations with the public and media.

The bottom line is that social media, in combination with traditional media, creates a powerful and effective method of communicating. You can accomplish organizational operational goals effectively with social media.

Social Media and FSS

When we brainstormed media outreach efforts for Fugitive Safe Surrender, we realized that money was very tight and that Washington, D.C. is an expensive market to communicate in. Campaigns like ours usually depend on unassigned airtime donated by radio and television stations. In a market like D.C., available free air-time is almost nonexistent (especially for TV).

Planed bus ads and timely television ads were cut due to budget. Money for a telephone answering system and web site dried up. This left us with radio ads developed through the Broadcaster’s Association, a telephone answering system cobbled together from our telephone system and a web site created by Mary Anderson (webmaster) from my agency ( It became clear that our use of social media would go from an accessory to a primary strategy.

The first thing we did was to go to a city that had already conducted a successful FSS (Indianapolis) and do interviews with offenders who surrendered. We were able to get compelling testimony from them and family members as well as judges who heard the cases. That testimony was mounted on our web site.

The radio and television ads that we had produced were mounted on the website. This established a one-stop shopping opportunity for offenders, their families and the media.

The concept of social media embraces the personalization of communications. To insure that we knew what to communicate and how to communicate, we conducted three focus groups of offenders under our supervision. It was the focus groups where we discovered that friends and family members would do the bulk of the research on FSS and the majority had Internet access. We now knew who we were talking to and how to reach them. But to be on the safe side, we implemented a telephone answering system with recorded messages.

We created radio ads in Spanish to accommodate that part of our population.

We created a radio show that fully explained the program.

We mounted easy to understand print materials on the web site.

All radio and television ads referred people back to the web site and telephone answering system.

We posted the radio and television ads on the same server used by our “DC Public Safety” programs.

But possibly the most powerful strategy was to interview the first person in line to surrender every day. The interviews were mounted on the web site by Enterprise Architect Timothy Barnes and publicized to media via e-mail and press release within an hour of their creation.

These individuals told compelling stories that resonated with the mainstream media and they presented those stories to the public at a crucial time of the campaign. One offender walked several miles to the site beginning at 3:00 a.m. at the request of his mother (it was her birthday). He described the surrendering process as a pilgrimage for change to a new life. He and several additional offenders agreed to be interviewed by mainstream media which furthered coverage.

Throughout the process, we looked for additional compelling stories to tell. We understood that story-based accounts communicated better than a public safety angle.


The social and traditional media approach employed (with very little money) worked beyond our expiations with 530 surrendering during the three day process. Friends and family members told us how they heard the radio ad and went to the web site and how the audio and video ads and testimonies of prior participants convinced them that the effort was legitimate. They became so comfortable with the process that surrendering mothers brought in their children. Some offenders were accompanied by multiple family members and friends. A son recently released from prison brought in his father for a theft warrant.

It’s important to understand that the social media approach worked with reporters, DJ’s, talk show hosts and their management. Several told us that they thought that the program was a bit silly until they went to the web site and listened to the audio and watched the video. The web site convinced them that this was a program worth investing in and, through the stories we provided, they helped us to publicize the program.

Podcasting and other forms of social media are powerful strategies that everyone can use. Whether it’s a quick form of emergency notification, getting the word out about a dangerous criminal or talking about new strategies, citizens and their leaders like the informal and informational aspects of audio, video and story based written material.

It’s time for all of us within the criminal justice system to use social media tactics within our own communities.

Articles on social media, podcasting and community outreach for criminal justice agencies are available through our blog at I look forward to your suggestions.


What To Do When You Have A Celebrity? Strategies for Dealing With the Entertainment Media

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Edited by Cedric Hendricks and Joyce McGinnis

See for “DC Public Safety” radio and television shows.

See for the web site of the federal Court Services and Offender Services Agency.

As all of you know, Paris Hilton is spending some quality time at the Los Angeles County Jail for a probation violation. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer ordered Ms. Hilton reincarcerated after jail officials allowed her to spend her time on house arrest after three days in the facility.

How would you handle the throng of media descending on you and your institution if you found yourself in similar circumstances?

In my 18 years of handling media for institutional and community corrections as the Director of Public Information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and the (federal) Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, I responded to a wide variety of media requests regarding well-known offenders. Mike Tyson (on Maryland’s parole and probation caseload) produced endless calls. The “Beltway Shooters” who terrorized the Washington D.C. metro area several years ago were incarcerated in Maryland’s Super Max prison. They and many others produced a fail share of national and international media attention.

The bottom line in media relations is insuring that celebrity offenders are treated no different than any other offender. “Friends” in the media will call for the inside scoop. Relatives will ask for information. Staff will be asked to act as informants. To say that it’s challenging is an understatement.

You will hear the media report circumstances that only people directly connected to the case would know. While it’s disconcerting, it happens all the time.

Staff may talk. Most will not talk to the media, but you should anticipate that some will. Some relay experiences to friends and families who may call the media. This could produce unfounded rumors. Rumors, as we all know, have a way of snowballing wildly. What we call a standard adjustment to incarceration could be major psychotic meltdown to others.

Note that it’s not unusual for the superintendent, commissioner or warden to feed information to their favorite reporters. Yes, it happens.

Your executives (or you) have to brief the governor’s office or city or county executive or their spokespersons. They may pass this information on to media.

First of all, stick to the script. All of us have public information policies or privacy laws to contend with. Stray from what’s permissible, and you will find yourself on the receiving end of negative news. Generally speaking, we can provide name, charge, start and end date, date of birth and confirmation that the offender is in your institution. Medical, psychological, criminal history and adjustment issues (how well they are doing) are off limits.

Obviously, staff operational issues are extremely important. Having the right administrator take charge of the case and making sure staff are aware of what’s coming and what’s expected is extremely important. Let them know that the media may try contact them and what to do.

Some spokespeople decide not respond to celebrity related media requests until release. That’s wise policy. My suggestion is to create an extensive fact sheet on the institution and routine day-to-day activities for all offenders and place it on your web site. That should answer many standard questions.

Note that there is a huge difference between the mainline and entertainment media. The entertainment media knows no bounds. They will probably try to speak to every member of the institution’s staff (and their families) by phone or at home. They will try to visit any offender in the institution just to get a scrap of information or rumor. They will offer all thousands of dollars for a photograph.

Regardless of to the posture you take regarding day-to-day inquiries, you will have to deal with rumors. You need to have updated information sent to you daily. You need to visit the institution so you know the lay of the land. You have to be in a position to respond immediately to inevitable false accusations. While you may refuse to answer day-to-day questions about the celebrity, you do not want triple the number of media at your doorstep spurred by the false belief that you are hiding something.

You need to have the cell or private telephone numbers of the institution’s executive staff and shift commanders to make necessary connections fast. Be sure to brief your executives as to breaking situations before talking to media.

Finally, you may want to be available for off-the-record conversations with a small number of mainstream (not entertainment) media or media management. Why?

Because they want to clarify rumors, your briefings may be your best bet to keep all media under control. You cannot give up privacy act or public information act information, but you can provide access to clarify the exaggerated remarks of informants. Trusted media who know the truth (i.e., no suicide attempts, no hunger strikes, no mental breakdowns, etc.) can be your best friend.

You may want to provide some reporters with quick access by providing your cell phone number. Getting a unique cell phone and number for the occasion would be helpful.

These are the people you will have to deal with after a celebrity driven event. They think you are helping them establish the truth, and you are. But what you and your institution or system get in return is accuracy and some control over the story.

Experienced public affairs personnel, not part-time PIO’s or institutional employees, may want to consider this tactic. There is an art to doing this without violating privacy considerations that veteran public affairs staff routinely employ as needed.

I look forward to your suggestions or comments. Please contact me at