Sgt. Tim Cotton didn’t plan to become a social media celebrity. And while the Bangor Maine Police Department Facebook page he manages has more than 175,000 fans and has earned worldwide media attention, he has a very simple philosophy.
“I write how I think. I write exactly what I think, and I write it like I would say it if I was speaking to you,” said the police sergeant who has become world famous for his humorous and poignant posts. “The secret is, there is no secret.”
Anybody who runs a college Facebook page — or any social media account — could learn from Cotton’s humble, honest lessons.
When Sgt. Cotton became administrator of the page in 2014, the page had fewer than 20,000 followers and Cotton says it was “just like everyone’s page.” A voracious reader, Cotton took a new approach. He employed the same tactic he’s used in his 28 years as an officer: humor.
“I’ve always found a common thread for me is to use humor,” Cotton said. “Even if I’m interviewing a bad guy, or a good guy, or a pervert, or whatever it might be, I always found if you can make people laugh they’ll like you more. And if they like you more, then they listen more. And if they listen more, you can actually have a conversation.”
It seems to have worked.
He set a goal to get 50,000 followers and quickly surpassed that – not without help from some pieces in the the likes of the Washington Post and Huffington Post, and having a post shared by TV star Mike Rowe. All of this without a dime spent on a social media budget.
Cotton is consistently collecting new content. Occasionally the police chief will ask him to post something, but more often his posts come from the department’s reports, which Cotton gets because of his position. Sometimes younger officers call him or text him tipping him off to certain reports. Getting the same input from veteran officers has proven a bit more difficult. And rarely does he get a photo to go along with what’s written up by the officers. But that’s where Cotton’s storytelling skills come in. “It’s a police page about people,” he says.
“I write the best I can,” Cotton explained. “I’m not a writer, but I think we tell good stories. And so I kind of pride myself on having a page with fewer pictures and more words because I think there’s still people out there that still appreciate the written word.”
All in a day’s work
A former radio newsman and current public information officer who admits he doesn’t like to talk on camera, Cotton says the role as Facebook administrator fits him. The sergeant wakes each day at 4:30 a.m. and will put up that day’s post around 6 a.m. He does it all on his own time, before he even heads to the station. He adds, though, that if the post from the day before did really well, he may delay posting the next one: “I don’t like to overcrowd people’s feeds with just crap.”
From there he watches the U.S. wake up. As the rising sun moves across the country, Cotton watches the likes build and the comments start to come in.
Cotton gets plenty of feedback from followers. He has grammarians writing to tell him how he misused the language. He gets tips and gratitude from people in the Queen City. And — even though he now gets invited to speak at conferences about social media — he has self-styled social media “experts” tell him he should shorten up his posts and add more pictures. Cotton tells them, “I know that’s your alleged rule, but I don’t care about the rule because I’m going to use it how I’m going to use it.” The only directive he follows is from the chief – no politics, no religion. Cotton is fine with that.
One constant on the page since Cotton took over is pictures with the Duck of Justice, aka the DOJ. The taxidermied duck that had been in the county’s District Attorney’s office was destined for the trash when Cotton salvaged him and started introducing new officers with interviews with the DOJ. Over time the DOJ has become a permanent fixture on the Facebook page and in the station. Cotton expanded the pictures from just new officers to special visitors, and now people from all over the world come into the station to have their picture taken with the duck. There’s even a large cutout for kids – or adults – to put their face in and become a Bangor Police Officer with the Duck of Justice standing next to them.
When visitors come into the station now, the front desk attendants don’t assume they are there to talk with an officer, but rather to snap a picture with the DOJ. There’s a sign-in sheet, and Cotton posts the pictures captioned with some of his notorious humor in the following weeks on the department’s Facebook page.
When asked about comments people leave, Cotton says over time he’s noticed that the page almost polices itself. “I’ve found I don’t need to say anything to a troll because (other followers) just eat them up on our page. Our page has become kind of an island of kindness. If you read out comments you’ll see most people are being pleasant because they drive the nasty commenters away.” He goes on to say when there’s a nasty comment, the others flock around it like bees attacking.
What he’s also learned over time is people like to give back. In one week this summer he had received five boxes of donuts, a wooden duck (apparently to be friends with the Duck of Justice), York Peppermint Patties, two plastic cruisers, a Krispy Kreme shirt from the company (because he mentioned Krispy Kreme in a post), three greeting cards, five pounds of Twizzlers and a replacement chair set for an elderly woman who had hers stolen and Cotton posted about it.
He didn’t tell the story of the woman’s table and chairs being stolen to get a replacement, Cotton explains, but a couple of days after the post a man came in and declined to give his name or accept thanks for purchasing a replacement. He just left the table and chairs and a receipt “in case the lady didn’t like it.”
“A story about a table,” Cotton said. “One story. That’s community and what it’s about! The positivity gives me hope for society sometime when we don’t see anything positive and when you see these folks that show up like that, there are great people out there.”
He goes on to say that police officers don’t always deal with great situations or people who are at their best, so when they see a response like that one, it’s helpful.
Not even three years into this role, Cotton has upped his goal to 200,000 followers. (That’s nearly seven times the population of Bangor.) Currently, he picks up an average of 550 to 2,000 likes depending on what he posted. The audience is 65 percent women age 25 to 60, though he does say he sees more men now than a year ago. “Their wives make them read it,” he jokes.
He also recognizes commenters’ names – there’s a core group, he says – and prides himself on reading nearly every comment himself. He also points out he has never asked for a like or a follow.
The sergeant has no plans to increase his social platforms to include Instagram or Twitter. He recognizes people enjoy those platforms, but “I need more information (in something I’m reading),” he argues.
“I don’t know where we go from here,” Cotton says. “I just keep writing, and if people keep liking it that’s great.”