Two billboards in York County drive home a message about drunk driving by using pictures more commonly associated with digital communication – emojis.
The billboards, on Celanese Road and Dave Lyle Boulevard in Rock Hill, highlight the S.C. Highway Patrol’s latest Sober or Slammer campaign, and are among 170 across the state. The campaign began in May and will run through the end of this year, said Sgt. Bob Beres, commander of the patrol’s community relations office.
The campaign will also include emoji safety messages on five million high school sporting event tickets starting in August and running through the 2017 school year.
Beres is better known as “Trooper Bob” on social media. He began using emojis in tweets and on other social media platforms last year, and his tiny picture messages have had a big impact, even garnering a story in the New York Times.
“It took hold, and it’s like a brush fire. It hasn’t ended,” said S.C. Highway Patrol Col. Mike Oliver of Beres’ emoji blitz. “I think people notice the (message) because it takes a little longer to figure it out and it keeps them on the message.”
Oliver described Beres as a people person who “thinks outside the box” and has a good rapport with young people, so it’s no surprise that users of social media are responding to Beres’ message.
“We have to to get our message across to different generations, and the younger generation uses these platforms,” Oliver said. “If it takes a tweet, an emoji or a billboard, we’re going to do it.”
10 Questions with Sgt. “Trooper Bob” Beres
Q: Why did you start using emojis to communicate your message about public safety?
A: It started with the flood of 2015. We were tweeting out pictures of vehicles that were stuck in washed-out roadways because they went around barricades. I decided to change the message around and incorporate emojis. That first emoji messages were retweeted almost 600 times (200 more times than the pictures of the vehicles).
Q: How have your posts with emojis been received?
A: The emoji messages receive a lot of likes and retweets because it’s a puzzle to most people. It reaches people of all age ranges and it’s a universal language. I’m Hungarian and showed the billboard message to my mother. She immediately figured it out and I knew if my mother can get it, anyone in the world can!
Q: How far have your posts reached?
A: The Twitter messages have been retweeted and “liked” around the United States and even in Europe. Several media outlets have done stories on it, from South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. It was even in The New York Times.
Q: What kind of feedback are you receiving from the public about your emoji-heavy tweets?
A: It’s really been positive. I post safety messages of all kinds and people like to decode them and pass them on to their followers. I look at it like this, I want to talk highway safety as if we were eating a hotdog at a ballpark and talking.
Q: Have you been surprised at the response?
A: I have been surprised because people tweet me and are surprised that I followed them back or like a post that they shared. It’s all about being involved in the community and treating folks like you want to be treated. I try to use a little humor but still keep the seriousness of the safety messages in people’s minds.
Q: What are other troopers and law enforcement saying about your use of emojis and the attention they've attracted?
A: The interaction between other agencies have been nothing but positive. We all have the same goal of keeping the public safe. The heartbreak of losing a person in a crash affects families the same in South Carolina as it would in Tennessee. We all follow other agencies and share ideas when we can.
Q: What about your nightly post at 9 p.m. 'Do you know where your children are?' How did that come about?
A: I was born in a refugee camp in Baden, Austria, but when I was a small kid living in Fairfield, Conn., a PSA would come on TV and read: “It’s 10 p.m., do you know where your children are?” I never forgot that because my dad would talk back to the TV and say, “Yep, he is on the couch,” or say wherever I was in the house. I wanted to bring that back because I do care about families and parents need to know where their kids are, especially at 9 or 10 p.m.
Q: Has there been more of a push for the Highway Patrol to be more active on social media? Why?
A: Our Community Relations Office and troopers are very active on all facets of social media. We have one community relations officer in each troop and at least the local community can put a face to a name. Sometimes, you only see a trooper driving by or working a collision.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish through your use of social media?
A: I hope to better connect law enforcement with the community. I’m the same person in and out of uniform and live in the state that I tweet out of. I have two sons and I’m raising them to respect law enforcement, but to also do their part in making the community better than they found it.
Q: What's your favorite or most-used emoji?
A: I like the happy face and the one that’s laughing. I’m easy going, I love to laugh and always try to stay positive.
You can follow Beres on Twitter at @TrooperBob_SCHP