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By Helping Cops With Social Media, Mainstream Media Helps Itself

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This is Part 2 of a two-part post on Toronto Traffic Control Officer, Sergeant Tim Burrows who has used social media to help his department distribute information relating to traffic control and safety in and around the city. Read part 1 here.

When traffic control officer Sergeant Tim Burrows had to find a better way to communicate with the public about Toronto's roadways, he turned to social media to solve his problem.

Getting emergency information out efficiently means a better informed public and a smoother cycle when it comes to breaking news. Sergeant Burrows discovered that many in his community -- and some places he never expected -- wanted to help him out.

He also found out that social media isn't all vanilla. A nuanced and diverse strategy is the best course of action.

"It has to be remembered and respected that social media is only a tool in the communication arsenal," said Sergeant Burrows. "Like anything else, using the right tool for the right job is the success factor."

A mainstream means to an end.

The mainstream media has its constraints and has sometimes prevented Sergeant Burrows from getting his message across as quickly and accurately as he'd like.

So you might be tempted to think that adopting social media for his role as a traffic control officer was purely for his own benefit, an attempt to do an end-run around the mainstream media. But he claims he didn't try to sideswipe traditional media with social web tools. He has a very good working relationship with Toronto news organizations and he knows that the media is the eyes and ears of the community.

"I respect their importance to spreading our message," he said. "The editing and institutional focus is necessary for their needs. Keeping those relationships alive and healthy is vital to my job and goal."

In fact, Burrows credits mainstream media for helping him get started. The first person to suggest he use social media on the job was Nicole McCormick from CityTV in Toronto. Part of McCormick's role as senior assignment editor is to stay abreast of breaking news as it happens around town.

"I need quick and easy access to information so I can in turn keep the producers, reporters and web team updated here at the station," McCormick said in an email. "As the main contact in Toronto traffic services it's important to me that Tim is easily accessible when information is required."

In emergency situations, McCormick might be one of many news agencies trying to get an official update from traffic control.

"When I heard of a serious car accident over the scanners the media would overwhelm Tim with phone calls which meant I had to leave a message and wait for my call to be returned," she said.

Knowing that Sergeant Burrows is always open to new ideas, McCormick suggested he try to disseminate news via websites like Twitter or Facebook. That way the Toronto Police could to get emergency information out to the media much faster.

The suggestion may have benefited Toronto Police but it was a self-serving tactic for McCormick too. News organizations can get what they need to report breaking events much faster from him now. It's a classic "win-win" situation.

"Now when there's a serious traffic issue I know I can rely on Tim to update the situation using his Twitter or Facebook account with the latest street closures and when we can expect him on scene to address the media," McCormick said.

A little help from his techie friends.

On his road less traveled, Sergeant Burrows turned to a few local tech experts to help him learn the ins and outs of social media. Amber MacArthur is the host of web tech show Command N and co-host of the N e t @ N i g h t podcast with popular tech broadcaster, Leo Laporte.

Appropriately, Burrows contacted MacArthur via Twitter to ask how he could facilitate better communication between the community and traffic services. She said that she gave him advice that could have come straight out of her forthcoming book, "Power Friending."

"Sergeant Burrows realized that traditional media wasn't necessarily reaching all the audiences that the department needed to reach," said MacArthur. "He asked me to explain how some of the basic social media sites work best and ideas about how I thought traffic services could use them."

MacArthur advised him that one of the most important things about communicating to an audience through social media was to use an authentic voice.

"Instead of tweeting or blogging from traffic services, the department would be more approachable and better received if someone like Burrows was the face online," she said.

So by bringing his communication platform into the police department he's not only gained control but he's also been able to increase the flow of information.

"The biggest difference now is that there is much more communication happening," Burrows said. "Something I tweet or post now that before would have had to gone through an official press release reaches people much faster and is more timely."

Even some of his passing thoughts or quick observances that would never had been worthy of a press release have actually turned up in stories by the mainstream media.

"I have never viewed my efforts in social media as a replacement for the mainstream media," he said. "It's another resource for them to use and an opportunity for our messages to reach more people."

Setting the bar and measuring success.

When he embraced social media, Burrows had to account for his actions, if only for his own edification. He made sure that true conversations were taking place by using an array of services.

"I wanted to see if the things that I was saying were being noticed by anyone so I set up Google Alerts and monitored if traffic safety stories were increasing in Toronto," he said.

And Burrows followed the road that many people new to social media travel by: obsessively tracking numbers of followers, friends and pageviews on his websites.

"I changed those goals as I learned more about what social media was really all about," he said. "Conversations were the true measure. It wasn't the quantity, it's the quality."

Burrows cites a few high water marks that he sees as indicators of success. He started receiving more traffic event information through social media than his Blackberry. Reporters, camera operators and the public began to let him know what was happening on our roads before traffic service personnel had a chance to do it.

"Then I noticed more people that I wouldn't have considered allies in traffic safety passing along my information and messaging," he said. "That really indicated that our traffic safety reach and awareness was increasing."

But his biggest indicator came from an initiative he took on Twitter.

"I asked on Twitter for people to tell me what their biggest pet peeves about other road users were," he said. "I took the responses, aggregated them into a blog post and tweeted the results."

Burrows said that the blog post titled, "Toronto's Pet Peeves For Driving" began three days of wall-to-wall interviews with media from all over wanting to know more about it.

Most impressive of all to Burrows is that his efforts have led him to places that he never saw when it all started. A self professed "social media junkie" he has shared his story to help others in law enforcement. He's seen his own messages posted in other cities, provinces, states and countries.

"The traffic safety message really knows no borders," said Burrows. "Reminding people of the dangers of distracted driving isn't just a Toronto issue, it's world wide, and so it has relevance everywhere."

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