Amanda Coleman learned that ‘I’m not destructible, and neither is the team’ after the Manchester Arena terrorist attack in May which left 23 people dead and more than 500 injured. The head of corporate communications for Greater Manchester Police adds: ‘You get caught up in doing things and keep going and delivering, but you’ve got to remember that this is challenging stuff. People need support.’
Coleman, who has been in her current role for nine years, has spent 16 years at Greater Manchester Police. She has covered many major incidents over her career, including the Manchester Riots in 2011, but the attack was by far the most impactful. And her team’s experience in social media came to the fore, this was – after all – the first police force to hold a 24 hour tweetathon seven years ago to provide real-time insight into its work by tweeting every incident recorded over the day.
The initiative boosted @gmpolice’s followers from 3,000 to peak at 14,000; today, the number stands at more than 559,000. ‘We started using Twitter in 2010 and have really built up the account over the years,’ says Coleman. Within ten minutes of the attack, @gmpolice was warning people to keep away from the Arena. It had minimal official information but there had been hundreds of calls to the emergency services and activity on social media saying there had been an explosion.
‘Twitter provides us with the ability to get information out really quickly,’ says Coleman. When it became clear that it had been a terrorist attack, the primary concern was to stop people going to the scene. ‘We were not sure if there was a second bomb or a secondary attack planned.’
She adds: ‘The team was so busy that we weren’t engaging with anyone on social media. We tried to keep an eye on what was being said, but it was about putting out information [not news updates]. If you’re concerned, here’s a number to call. If you want to report a missing person, here’s what you do. Twitter gives us the ability to get information out very quickly.’
Social media served as the main communications channel until press conferences were held the next day, when journalists were given an official update on the situation. Handling communications in the wake of the attack ‘showed the best of my team’, she adds. ‘They did what they had to do. They cancelled holidays and family get togethers.’
Her team also had to coordinate with the families of the victims, handling media requests, helping those who wished to make statements and simply offering support. Understandably, it was an emotional time. ‘I am passionate about resilience and well being in communications,’ she adds. Counsellors have been on hand to help all members of the force.
When Coleman started in police communications, the function of the team was essentially media relations. There were lots of advertising campaigns designed to help people protect themselves against attackers and their property against burglars.
Today, Coleman’s remit includes modern slavery, child sexual exploitation, cyber-crime and counter terrorism, to name just a few. ‘It is totally different,’ she adds. Recently, the team completed its annual campaign to persuade people to surrender any guns they may have – no questions asked. And its communications strategy around modern slavery and human trafficking has won accolades.
Her team’s role is to promote the force’s work, to keep the public informed but also to make police seem approachable. The force employs 2,000 officers and nobody knows what each day will bring. By providing such insight into their role, it is also hoped to attract potential new recruits.