A new type of emergency plan Article icon

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Communication plans for managing emergencies had to be ripped up and re-written when disturbances hit cities across the UK. London and Birmingham were already burning and under attack when Greater Manchester Police stepped up its preparations for possible disorder in the county. Never before has the use and misuse of social media been so central to a major incident faced by the emergency services. The events were truly 'game-changing' for all those who have to provide communication support during emergencies.

Even before the first signs of trouble on Manchester's streets, Greater Manchester Police's specialist web team were providing support to identify information and intelligence being posted on Facebook and Twitter. Their skills were vital, supporting officers working to decipher what was fact and what was rumour.

The events moved very quickly from the preparations to the first action. It was clear from the start this was very much a social media incident. People were sharing concerns, asking for information, reporting what they were seeing and in some cases were deliberately trying to incite trouble using social networks.

Greater Manchester Police already had a healthy 23,000 followers on Twitter having carried out a 24 hour tweetathon in October 2010 to give the public an opportunity to see what they have to deal with on a daily basis. The Force had a strong following on the photograph based social network Flickr, as well as a presence on YouTube and Facebook. Responding to this emerging crisis without maximising social networks would have been a huge mistake.

Emergency communication plans historically focus on relaying speedy updates to the traditional media who can broadcast up-to-the-minute information, which is still important. But social networks provide us with the opportunity to do it ourselves by speaking directly to people through the platforms. The riots demonstrated that it was time for a new and truly integrated communication plan.

Integration is vital

The most critical element was to ensure integration of social media into the wider communication plan while also ensuring that this plan was integrated into the policing operation. We quickly made our Twitter feed @gmpolice the voice of authority, and a way to find out the facts about what was happening. Through this channel we answered queries about rumours and concerns that people had about possible issues across Greater Manchester. Our approach has always been to be honest in the Twitter feed, and we continued this strategy. Where we could confirm or deny there was trouble emerging we did, and when the situation was confused or unclear we ensured we didn't provide an update that could ultimately be wrong.

Once the trouble had reached the streets of Manchester and Salford and the events began to unfold, it was clear there would have to be a significant investigation to bring criminals before the courts.

Within six hours of the trouble on the streets a special 'Most Wanted' Flickr site had been set up where photographs of the wanted people could be published. The decision was made to keep it separate from the main Flickr site so that it was easier for people to use to identify offenders. In addition to this, people could upload photos or video to our Facebook page, could submit images through the official GMP website and could find out what the Force was saying by watching footage of our press conferences on YouTube.

All the elements were promoted through the respective social networks, as well as being available from the homepage of the GMP website. People were quickly swamping police with information about those involved, photographs and footage of looters and the key was to provide an easy and accessible way for them to keep supporting the investigation team.

In the days that followed, social networks proved to be a great way of getting feedback and also gauging the public mood. There was a huge amount of public support for the police officers who had faced bricks and bottles as they tried to protect communities and businesses in Manchester and Salford. Overwhelming support for police activity came through social networks when we started to tweet details of those charged and convicted for their part in the disturbances. The conversation that had started when we were in the middle of the trouble continued with hundreds of questions answered. We made use of these positive comments about the police from people on Twitter, sharing them with officers and staff through the Force Intranet.

Direct engagement

At our peak the number of Twitter followers increased to 101,000, and from just over one thousand we rose to more than 7,000 Facebook friends, videos were viewed by more than 10,000 people and the 'Most Wanted' Flickr site had more than one million hits. It wasn't all straightforward. There were problems. There were issues. There were errant tweets. Navigating through the social networks was only possible by recognising when things went wrong, apologising and asking for feedback about what worked and what could be improved. This was a 24 hour a day undertaking. Monitoring the networks took place round the clock, which involved many staff who needed to be able to manage corporate use of social networks. Having so many followers and people conversing through social networks is a great responsibility and needs the appropriate resourcing in place.

The events of 9 August were truly life-changing for communication professionals. Emergency plans that had been largely unchanged for years are now being torn up and re-written. All future crises and emergencies will require a fully integrated communication plan with recognition of the key role social networks can have in both challenging and providing opportunities for communication. No organisation, business or company can afford to shy away from engaging through social networks. When the streets are burning it isn't time to start to learn how to use social networks; all the lessons need to have been learned in times of peace.