Twitter for public institutions: a masterclass from @Policia

It started as all viral social media phenomena should: the occasional strange retweet from an unknown source appearing in my Twitter feed:

@Policia hipsterTranslation: You might be a hipster or from another tribe or urban trend, but don’t share all your intimate secrets. Privacy beats being trendy.

The @Policia handle claimed to represent the Spanish National Police, but since institutional Twitter accounts usually spew out press releases, I assumed they must have been hacked.

But the RTs kept on coming:

Translation: With your partner or “friend with benefits “, remember what INTIMACY means. “Turn on the passion”… but TURN OFF the camera NO TO SEXTING!

Next theory: a spoof account. But no, a few months on, everyone in the Spanish social media world is talking about the daring Twitter strategy of the country’s Policía Nacional, masterminded by Carlos Fernández Guerra (@carfergue).

Why is the Spanish National Police Twitter strategy so successful?

Really, it comes down to the basics of communication, so easy to understand in theory, but so difficult to apply in practice: 1) understand the medium 2) understand the audience

1) The currency of Twitter is the retweet and @Policia, have discovered that the best way to get them is to tweet things that no-one would expect the police to say. It’s the ‘can you believe the police said this?!’ factor.

2) The mistake most public institutions make is to think that, because they serve all of the public, that all of their communciations have to be directed at the broadest possible audience. This kind of strategy often produces bland, boring messages which end up having no impact on anyone. Instead of publishing generic crime and security advice and information, the @Policia account relentlessly targets Twitter’s young, tech savvy user base with tweets about fashion, alcohol, sex and parties. Given that the police don’t traditionally have an easy time engaging with young people, this approach is all the more valuable to the institution.

Finally, the joy of the @Policia tweets isn’t quite, as everyone is arguing, that they are ‘down with the kids’. Anyone who thinks young people talk like this is clearly doesn’t know any:

@policia on fireTranslation: You don’t need to break the rules or attack anyone to be “on fire” Respecting others and the law is the coolest.

The delight comes in the contrast between an institution seen as stuffy and authoritative using slang in a knowing, self-aware way. There’s always a nudge and a wink acknowledging that the police will never really be ‘street’.

Other public institutions, far beyond law enforcement, could learn a lot from the example of @Policia. Write the tweets your audience wants to read, not the tweets your organization wants them to want to read. Adapt to the language, tone, and demands of the medium and, above all, don’t be boring!