PR Nightmares And Social Media

I am amazed at how the story of the Regina Police Facebook page has spread. You may not be from Regina, so here’s a very brief outline:

On Saturday, March 23, 2013 at approximately 7:30pm two members of the Regina Police were involved in a foot chase with a suspect of a severe physical assault. During the chase, the police members entered a yard that contained a dog. An altercation between the dog and officers occurred and ultimately, the dog was shot and killed.

This could not have been a more controversial event. Crime, private property, animal rights, etc – all of these things have converged on one story and the case has gained international attention. It has become a PR nightmare for the Regina Police Service.

As a result of this incident, the Regina Police Service (RPS) Facebook page was flooded with people posting comments that were filled with hate. The shear volume of comments that were being posted overwhelmed the RPS and eventually, the page was removed.

One of the biggest concerns I hear from business owners is that being on social media will somehow expose them to incidents like this – that their business will become a victim of some kind of international incident and they will have to pay the price. It’s just easier, they say, if I don’t participate in social media.

There is a serious flaw with this type of thinking – it implies a belief that people will not talk about the event if you aren’t on social media.

The owner of the dog that was shot, a Mr. Peter Cote, took a photo of blood stained snow and posted it on his Facebook page. Here’s a screen shot:

As of right now, that post has been shared more than 850 times. The comments on those shares are not positive – they almost universally mock and express negative views of the Regina Police Service. The point is this – people are talking about you on Facebook whether or not you are there. Whether or not the RPS has a Facebook page, this story has grown legs.

In general, if you have a presence on social media, you have an opportunity to engage the people who are saying negative things about you. You can offer an explanation for what happened, ask them for their patience, and in this case, tell people who are concerned that you are investigating the incident and keep them up-to-date on the investigation. Your Facebook page doesn’t open your brand up to criticism online, it simply gives you a voice in those conversations.

Now, let’s be clear – there are people who are upset about something that you have done, and then there are angry mobs wielding pitchforks and flaming torches. One of those groups can be talked to and reasoned with, the other can not.

In the case of the RPS and this incident, they were dealing with an angry mob that could not be reasoned with and who were simply running out of control. Think of the Vancouver Riots – no amount of pre-planning would have prevented angry, probably drunk people from running out of control. In the same manner, I’m not convinced that the RPS could have prevented angry people from flooding their page with comments when faced with a PR crisis.

I think that the RPS did the right thing by temporarily removing their Facebook page. I hope that they unpublished their page, rather than simply deleting it, and I hope that they bring the page back soon. The Facebook page did not cause this PR problem. But in the meantime, there is a person in the hospital who was severely beaten whose attackers are running free. There is also a new case of a 27 year old woman who has gone missing in the city. In both of these cases, especially the case of the missing woman, an RPS Facebook presence sharing pictures and details could help to move the investigation forward.

There are alternatives to taking the page down of course, and if the Regina Police Service had an unlimited budget and access to unlimited manpower, they could have implemented some of those alternatives. But they don’t. And to make matters more difficult, the event we are talking about involves a criminal investigation – so in many ways their hands are probably tied. I think that most of this outrage will blow over by the weekend, and I’d like to see the page back next week.

I’m surprised that the story of the RPS Facebook page has spread so quickly, but it does offer social media professionals an opportunity to watch and learn from the way things are handled. What are they doing right? What are they doing wrong? What are the long-term implications?



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