Boston, the East Lincolnshire town famous for having the UK’s highest proportion of Leave voters in the 2016 Referendum, has became the unlikely setting for Wild Bill, an ITV drama about an American detective, played by Rob Lowe, tasked with revolutionising the police force and helping solve a spate of crimes beleaguering the town.
But the fictional police force was keen to learn from the real one. Lincolnshire Police were approached by the programme’s makers last year, although the plot lines remained a mystery until the first show aired.
Senior press officer Jemma Peacock explains: ‘Initially we just didn’t know what we were dealing with. We didn’t know how the police service or Boston would be presented. But we reminded ourselves, it’s fiction, and we had no power to influence how these things would be portrayed anyway. We followed our Chief Constable’s ethos which was to be relaxed about it and open to any positive opportunities that might arise.’
Fortunately, this wasn’t the Force’s first rodeo. They knew from past experience that the Internet would be watching the show, and so it followed that they should too, if only to dispel any myths that the show might perpetuate in its representation of a rural police force and the conspicuously handsome American who comes to ‘sort it out’.
Peacock adds: ‘We were previously the subject of an ITV documentary called Rookies and we called upon this experience and knowledge to develop our social media strategy. We know that new prime time shows can trend on Twitter, as Rookies did, so we thought we should be there to live tweet. Not only to jump on the opportunity for positive engagement, but also to manage our reputation if necessary and support our Bostonian population. We knew a couple of things would come up, like a suggestion that a rural force has no clue about DNA and an assertion of a high violent crime rate, and we wanted our say on these things as a reliable factual source.’
During the first hour-long show, the Lincolnshire Police account tweeted six times, pointing out ‘criminal inaccuracies’ and reassuring any wannabe lawbreakers watching that, despite what Wild Bill said, the force carries out ‘meticulous scene examinations and we use your DNA to convict you’.
It also tweeted that any concerns about the police officers on-screen would be passed to AC-12, the anti-corruption unit from hit BBC show Line of Duty. The tweets garnered more than 130,000 impressions between them, and saw average engagement more than double on the day of airing. The live tweeting was also written about on the BBC News website.
But Lincolnshire Police, which has more than 79,000 followers on its Twitter account, isn’t just fighting reputational issues. The airing of Wild Bill’s first episode coincided with heavy rain across the county, and subsequent reports of flooding, so Peacock considered how well any lighthearted tweets about a TV programme would be received amongst the more serious weather warnings.
Ultimately, however, the live tweeting was ‘incredibly well received’, says Peacock, adding: ‘I am not sure we could replicate this reception for subsequent episodes as I think part of the humour was, in part, the element of surprise. People didn’t expect it from a police account.’
She adds: ‘Our Police twitter account, quite rightly, needs to be serious and characterless given the gravity of what we are often communicating and the consequences if we get the tone wrong. Ironically, this fiction gave us the opportunity to appear more real; to show character and humour for a change. Wild Bill is quite surreal and off the wall, and so it gave us licence to respond in the same way and the public really took to this.’
Whether Wild Bill becomes a hit or not, the reasoning behind the tweets remains sound. As the Force tweeted on the opening night: ‘[Boston] may have been called a #godforsakencabbagepatch by @RobLowe in tonight's episode of #wildbill but it's OUR #godforsakencabbagepatch and we are proud to police it, come rain or shine. #PolicingWithPride’.
‘We wanted to defend the police service and Boston if necessary but we didn’t want to look defensive,’ concludes Peacock. ‘Humour allowed us to make our points without looking like we took ourselves too seriously and in a way that engaged the audience and had the greatest reach. Our pressing concerns were to support the people of Boston and address any reputational concerns. Boston is a beautiful town with some very proud and community-minded residents.’