May 24, 2013
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing this past April, many turned to the Boston Police Department (BPD) Twitter stream to find reliable updates on rapidly unfolding events.
Twitter emerged as the go-to platform during the five-day manhunt for the bombing suspects. Initially, the site was the only way to push out information after two pressure-cooker bombs killed three bystanders and injured 282 near the race’s finish line on April 15.
Cheryl Fiandaca, bureau chief of public information for the BDP, spoke to Tactics about managing the crisis and updating the public. She provides a behind-the-scenes look into how the BPD used Twitter to connect with the community and provide critical information during the search for suspects.
Police blocked area cell phone service after the bombings due to concerns that phones might have detonated the explosives.
The BPD’s blog is a popular media source (with nearly 30,000 monthly views), but heavy user traffic caused it to crash, so Fiandaca used Twitter for BPD’s first announcements. She tweeted from the @Boston_Police handle 10 times during about 90 minutes, including: “Boston Police confirming explosion at marathon finish line with injuries” and “BPD asking people not to congregate in large crowds.”
Fiandaca said that Twitter proved to be the quickest and most reliable way to communicate with Boston residents, marathon runners, friends and family members, the news media, BPD employees and other law enforcement agencies. The BPD posted 148 tweets during the five-day manhunt that ended with the capture of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Afterward, the final tweet thanked BPD’s many supporters: “The Boston Police Appreciates the love and support of the USA GOD BLESS AMERICA. BOSTON STRONG!”
Before the bombing, the BPD’s Twitter account had about 54,000 followers. According to Mashable, this grew to more than 330,000 followers afterward. The account reached nearly 49 million people within five days.
Fiandaca credits this to accurate, trustworthy information disseminated in a timely manner.
When multiple news sources, including the AP and CNN, erroneously reported that a suspect was in custody, BPD tweeted to set the record straight.
“We corrected a lot of misinformation,” she says. “I think we became a very reliable, solid way to get information.”
Three police officers and three civilians staff the news bureau. Fiandaca says the department cross-trains staff to perform PR activities, like writing news releases or posting Facebook and Twitter messages.
The public information office does not tweet in real-time even though it can see via computer what is happening during police operations.
“[We] don’t want to jeopardize any officers — their safety and their investigation,” she says. “Once the scene has happened and everyone knows what’s going on, you can start tweeting.”
While there wasn’t an official blog policy at the time of the bombing, when Fiandaca joined the department, 10 months earlier, BPD Commissioner Edward Davis asked the public information office to handle social media messaging and to use it more often to directly communicate with the public.
Fiandaca, a former television news reporter with 16 years of experience working in New York City and Boston, knows the value of news and has organized her department to provide it.
While the department had always provided the “good news” about what BPD was doing, she started sharing updates on important crime investigations.
“I wanted us to become a news organization in addition to being a police department. If you want to know about something that’s happening [with the police], we want to be the source,” Fiandaca says. “You don’t have to go to any of the news stations; you don’t have to read the newspaper. You can read our blog [or] follow us on Twitter to get up-to-date on the big stories.”
There are limits, however, within a “command and control” work environment. BPD does not communicate information that would put police officers or community residents’ safety at risk during an ongoing operation. For example, it tweeted media alerts asking the media to refrain from mentioning or broadcasting the exact locations of law enforcement officers during search operations.
While the Boston Marathon bombing suspects were armed, dangerous and on the run, BPD needed Bostonians to remain calm yet vigilant.
“We didn’t want to cause a panic or hysteria, but at the same time everyone felt [basic] information needed to get out to people so they knew what was happening,” Fiandaca says.
This strategy counteracted numerous alternative Internet sources — some fed on rumors and speculation.
Several news outlets speculated on the unfolding events with inaccurate information. On April 17, CNN reported that authorities had arrested a suspect in but the scoop turned out to be false. The next day, the front page of The New York Post misidentified a local high school runner as a suspect.
BPD’s 148 tweets during the crisis had a matter-of-fact tone that provided useful information about the unfolding events. Here are some examples: “Two bomb sweeps made prior to marathon,” “176 people went to area hospitals” and “No signs of imminent threat, FBI says.”
The BPD asked followers to be vigilant and to report any tips, video or photos that would help with the investigation. After three days without any suspects in custody, the FBI released videos and stills of two suspects, later identified as brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
The BPD also tweeted the images, which thousands of followers retweeted to their social networks.
It tweeted three additional photos of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev throughout the day on Friday, April 19. The first, depicting a younger Dzhokhar, generated more than 20,000 retweets, while an updated one received more than 26,000 retweets; another photo of Dzhokhar in a hoodie from a convenience store surveillance video generated nearly 11,500 retweets.
However, BPD’s Twitter feed did not report on all police activity, such as the chaotic and rapid succession of events beginning on April 18 at around 10:20 p.m., when the two suspects ambushed and killed an MIT campus security officer, then carjacked a Mercedes.
The owner of the car was able to flee unharmed, and a shootout with police followed. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed while Dzhokhar Tsarnaev escaped.
Instead of releasing specific details, the BPD issued precautionary tweets on the morning of Friday, April 19: “There is an active incident ongoing in Watertown. Residents in that area are advised to remain in their homes. More details when available.” Another read: “#CommunityAlert: Door-to-door search 4 suspect in Watertown continues. Uniformed officers searching. Community consent critical.” And an additional one said: “#MediaAlert: WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched.”
Throughout the tense night and following day, with Bostonians in virtual lockdown, the BPD continued to provide information, including a notice that the evening’s Bruins and Red Sox games, the Big Apple Circus performance and a civil service test were postponed, and that the local transit authority and taxi service were suspended until further notice.
There were also messages of encouragement and condolences, such as: “#CommunityAlert: Chief Ed Deveau thanks Watertown residents for their exceptional patience & cooperation” and “The BPD extends thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of fallen hero and MIT Police Officer Sean Collier.”
After the door-to-door search did not find Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the authorities had lifted the shelter-in-place order, the BPD tweeted more messages of encouragement, including community alerts from the news conference. One noted that Col. Alben of the State Police said, “the effort was there today; unfortunately the result wasn’t” and another noted, “the search continues & the suspect will be caught. If you see the suspect call 9-1-1.” BPD also posted a community alert via Mayor Tom Menino saying, “Together we will get through this crisis.”
As the law enforcement news conference was ending, police were closing in on the suspect hidden in a boat parked in a backyard. BPD tweets asked residents in the Franklin Street area of Watertown to “shelter in place,” followed by “Heavy police presence in area of Franklin St in Watertown. Residents remain inside.”
Soon after, BPD tweeted the news: “Suspect in custody. Officers sweeping the area. Stand by for further info.”
A few minutes later, at 8:58 p.m., it sent the following: “CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect is in custody,” which Twitter users retweeted nearly 144,000 times.
Fiandaca says that Twitter was a valuable tool for managing the information and helped the BPD “connect directly with the community.” The public information department responded to all requests as quickly as possible, she says, and its tweets as well as its followers’ retweets built a cohesive community, reduced panic, engaged the public during the search for suspects and kept people safe.
The matter-of-fact tone and the attention to accuracy made the BPD an important and trusted source of news.
“We’re not in the business of sensationalizing or trying to create emotions,” Fiandaca says.
The goal with Twitter was to provide useful and accurate information that would encourage public safety.
So what’s next? The BPD is redesigning its blog and website, developing a new mobile app and adding live chats with BPD members, such as the commissioner.
Fiandaca adds: “We’ll be thinking of new ways to keep all the followers we gained.”
Patricia Swann, M.S., associate professor of public relations, is dean of the School of Business and Justice Studies at Utica College. She is the author of “Cases in Public Relations Management.”
Email: pswann at utica.edu