Her remarks were labelled hypocritical, following years of funding cuts to emergency services, and have also been rebuked by a high-ranking police officer.
Patel said Dorset police "mustn’t waste taxpayers'" money on inflated salaries for unnecessary jobs, particularly when entry-level cops are paid as little as £18,450.
She was responding to an article in The Sun that compared the salaries Dorset police were offering social media officers to the starting salary of police constables.
We will give the police the resources they need to keep the streets safe, but they mustn’t waste taxpayers' money on inflated salaries for unnecessary jobs. The public want more police officers & fewer social media officers. https://t.co/T0Pze0tyCG— Priti Patel MP (@patel4witham) August 27, 2019
Patel recently announced funding for a recruitment drive to hire 20,000 more police officers, about the same amount that have been cut since the Conservative Party came to power in 2010.
Patel has recently made a point of calling out social media budgets, challenging London Mayor Sadiq Khan to spend more on tackling knife crime after it emerged City Hall's PR budget had doubled to £2.5m.
Dorset police chief constable James Vaughan defended the job ad, pointing out that the social media officer role requires a degree, "significant experience, and would cover police social media comms across three counties – Dorset, Devon and Cornwall.
"Our ability to engage a population of three million people across our three counties depends upon the employment of a small number of professional police staff, in addition to the 4,200 police officers across both forces," Vaughan said.
He said the £18,000 salary being reported was for student officers starting a three-year degree apprenticeship and that officers can expect their salaries to rise to £40,000 after seven years' service.
Vaughan believes that police salaries are too low and have been eroded in recent years, but the rate is set nationally rather than by local forces.
PR professionals have largely criticised Patel and believe the problem is that salaries for frontline police officers are too low, rather than the market rate for social media comms professionals being too high.
Sarah Samee, who has previously worked in the Home Office comms team and is director of strategic comms firm SJS Strategies, believes Patel is undermining the value of social media comms.
She tweeted: "Police staff also took the hit from Conservative-led police cuts. The Home Office should look at its own staff numbers and budgets before they start to meddle in police resources again. Chicken boxes to solve knife crime?"
Damien Currie, comms manager at Traffic Commissioners for Great Britain, added: "It’s a reflection of the (under)value placed on frontline roles, sadly. Emergency services, army officers etc, don’t get paid enough for putting their lives on the line - it’s that simple. Even recent, targeted salary increases weren’t enough. So value of PR isn’t the issue."
Social Comms director Ben Lowndes believes Patel hasn’t quite grasped the importance of social media to emergency services as a communications channel with the public.
When emergencies happen, police social media feeds are a vital part of the response. This isn’t about posting some random tweets. It supports officers and saves lives. The salary is unfairly compared with entry-level roles. And you’re using social media to make this point! https://t.co/OA6uNOymyD— Ben Lowndes (@blowndes) August 28, 2019
CIPR president Emma Leech described the comments as "naive and ill-considered".
"They do a disservice to the excellent work undertaken by communications professionals in the police force. Their work keeps us safe," Leech added.
"We should recognise their contribution and appreciate the impact they have on enabling and delivering frontline services. The comments are particularly disappointing given the Home Secretary's background in public relations. More than most, she should be aware of the importance of professional communications."
Managing director of Astute and former CIPR president Sarah Waddington was much more blunt in her response.
And the PR industry would like politicians to engage ethically and honestly but it’s not happening is it? Community engagement is key to keeping people safe and that salary is more than competitive. This woman is a dangerous, disingenuous fool. https://t.co/TWA8nfQGl5— Sarah Waddington (@Mrs_Wadds) August 27, 2019
Some on Twitter supported Patel's sentiment.
She is 100% right. More arrests less Instagram stories— Dominic McCarthy (@DomMcC) August 27, 2019
However, the majority pointed out that her own party had stretched police resources and stagnated salaries in years of funding cuts.
It was also noted that in the year to 30 September 2018, Patel claimed more than £150,000 in expenses, making her the most expensive MP in Parliament.