Live web chat with police through your hyperlocal site – hints and tips

We did a small Coveritlive web chat for local police to talk with the community through my hyperlocal site www.kingscrossenvironment.com .  My local police in London’s Kings Cross approached me to see if they could use my website to reach a wider audience than their traditional channels.  As a one-time serial attender of police community meetings I was delighted to help.  Local evening meetings have their roots in a C19th tradition of political organising and don’t suit many modern lifestyles.  They need to be augmented with modern methods that reflect people’s online communication behaviour.

The local Sergeant was keen to embrace new media.  But I know only too well the Met  Police is conservative at senior levels about modern media, living as it does in a very highly sensitised media environment.  The local borough press officer had seen me give a talk to the Met press officers about my site and had obtained clearance to innovate.  I suggested a live webchat. My site based in a once crime-ridden area is firmly pro police (two of our contributors have been on the Safer Neighbourhood Panel) and our commenters are of the non rabid variety.  So for the police it was very much a carefully managed innovation risk.

We did the chat with Chief Inspector Claire Clark, Sergeant Michael Atkins and an MPS press officer Susannah Taw.  Clare Hill who writes for the site was also in the room to help me, Jon Foster who runs the Kings Cross social media surgeries was also a producer, but in Birmingham.  I spoke with Mike Rawlins who delivered the very successful ‘Ask the Commander’ web chat in Stoke-on-Trent on his Pitsnpots site, written up here.

Here are some observations if you are thinking about doing a police web chat on your local site.  Much of this applies to any web chat.

It’s great fun – we all enjoyed ourselves, including i think the questioners.  I can’t say that about most local meetings.

Audience and preparation

Even though my baseline comparator was a community meeting where ten people turn up I got that normal ‘party anxiety’ that no one would come.  I have a mature site audience who I know from experience have quite set patterns of behaviour – for instance most of them read the site in a daily email and there are a number that don’t think the site exists and it is just an email service.  So a live chat, at a fixed time with nothing local to compare it to was pushing it.  The police put a notice around their networks including the neighbourhood managers email list.  I pimped the session on Facebook, Twitter and posts on the website.  I approached several people I knew i could count on personally  and a couple of local political figures with big local followings retweeted for me.

The Coveritlive stats show that we had 46 ’readers’ who put in 106 comments with an average reader duration of 52 minutes.  I was pleased with this, comparing it to the typical local meeting.  None of these people had to leave their house, get child care, go out in the dark and wet, sit on hard plastic chairs for hours, tackle fear of public speaking, nor reveal their true identity when discussing serious local crime issues.  Late arrivals could view earlier discussion. More than one of them was cooking and eating their dinner while putting in questions.

I invited questions via other media in advance and played them in as chair (or ‘Writer’ in Coveritlive parlance).  I got questions via email and blog comments too and fed them in, in one case anonymously.

Make sure that the police take care to notify the local press so they don’t get the hump.  This isn’t an issue everywhere and wasn’t for me in Islington.

The chat

Tone.  I stressed that the ‘I was proceeding in a northerly direction’ style of police comms doesn’t work in this medium.  Claire, Michael and Susannah all ‘got’ this and struck a balance between necessary formality when discussing serious topics and more light hearted stuff.  They were game for banter about food (i forgot to provide any, we were all starving the audience was having dinner with which they taunted us with…) and TV shows which helped the mood.

There was a glut of questions at the beginning.  They needed managing and staggering so that the questions and answers don’t get miles out of synch in the chat dialogue.  Someone needs to keep an eye on questions to make sure you don’t miss one, especially when a dialogue develops around an answer.  Send a private message to a questioner explaining that theirs will be answered in turn (Mike’s tip).  It’s good to have a second ‘Producer’ in the room to help manage that.  Some stock text in notepad that you can copy and paste in is handy.  There’s a fair bit of multi-tasking required.

We covered a wide range of stuff from local dangerous traffic, to knife crime, murders, ASB etc.  When questions wander off topic or get into too much detail it’s up to the chair to pull things back gently, the panellists won’t know how necessarily.  I put up a prior warning about not covering contempt, live cases or things that put people in danger. I checked with the police as well if there was anything specific they couldn’t cover due to these issues.

Get some pictures of the session running live and stick them into the chat, have avatar pics for the panellists  (we only had one avatar pic). Good for slack spots and helps connect with the audience.

Polls and trivia questions can also help when there’s a natural pause – we asked how many burglaries per week on average (answer 2).

The audience feedback was good:

‘A great success! And I love that it’s all documented on the site so that everyone can see how it went. Congratulations’

‘Thanks, Will Claire and Michael for running this web chat. I found many of the comments and responses very interesting.’ etc

Technology

Coveritlive is very easy to use, free and more than adequate for this.  You go to their site, register, set up a basic chat and then copy the embed code across to your site.  And err, that’s it.  You run it from a separate browser window.  It uses iFrames and so won’t work on wordpress.com that doesn’t like iFrames – you can post a link on your site and have the chat at Coveritlive.  Worked fine on typepad, will work fine on blogger.

Have a dry run chat yourself with a co-conspirator on a throwaway blog to get used to the tech.  Sergeant Atkinson and his press officer joined me for a tech rehearsal where we did just that.  In particular practice inviting people as panellists – police often don’t have email they can access off network so need to remember their personal email login details to click a link.

Hardware - I wished i had a slightly bigger monitor than my 14” laptop.  Dont’ rely on police ‘laptops’, bring a netbook or two if you can lay your hands on them.  The Islington laptop was fine, but i have heard some horror stories.

In Coveritlive set the police officers up as Panellists – they can see the question-queue but can’t bring in questions.  Have some tech back up as Producers – in my case Clare in the room and Jon Foster in Birmingham.

Put the chat panel in your site some hours in advance just to check.  Open the chat 30 mins before answering questions starts.  Do this manually there is something odd about Coveritlive’s time zones that Mike forewarned me about.

I advertised a twitter hashtag #kxcops for questions direct into Coveritlive but i couldn’t work out how to get twitter into the moderation panel – they came live into the chat unmoderated so I turned it off.  There’s a setting somewhere I missed.

Bandwidth – obvious really but if you are doing a chat in the evening check there are venues with wifi open late enough.  We used the Hub in Kings Cross.  Don’t do it at the police station without testing the mobile signal etc – police tech is so paranoically locked down i wouldn’t touch it.  Mike did his Stoke session at the cop shop on 3G with a router which worked well he tells me.

That’s it – have a go and chip stuff into the comments if you think i have missed anything.

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william perrin

Founder of Talk About Local, Trustee of the Indigo Trust, member of UK Government transparency panels, former Policy Advisor to UK Prime Minister, former Cabinet Office senior civil servant.Open data do-er, Kings Cross London blogger. Loves countryside. Two kids, not enough sleep.
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