Within seven minutes of the terrorist attack starting on Westminster Bridge in March, @MetPoliceUK, the official corporate Twitter account for Metropolitan Police, had tweeted that the force was aware of an incident to its more than one million followers. ‘We had prepared messaging ready to go that allowed us to get information out as quickly as we could,’ explains Ed Stearns, currently acting director, media and communications. ‘Any information that we could put out publicly we were putting out via Twitter. It meant that we were the most retweeted source, which shows people were using us as a trusted source.’
Ensuring that the Metropolitan Police’s communication strategy is seamless in the event of a major incident has been a key focus of Stearns’ work in recent years. He has overhauled the force’s major incident plan, which had become unwieldy and outdated, and, with colleagues, has worked to ensure that communications is viewed as an operational resource.
‘Historically, the communications department was seen as people who were going to sort out the headache that the media were going to be for the police in a major incident,’ he explains. ‘Now it is seen that communications can change behaviour and ultimately save lives potentially and can really help with the effectiveness of an operation. We’ve sold it that way internally.’
Stearns has spearheaded the communications strategy in the event of a terrorist attack, even travelling to Paris in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo incident to find out what the issues had been in dealing with the media and members of the public, and any lessons that had been learned. ‘We recognised that we have to be quick because information can be issued within seconds after an incident on social media,’ he says. ‘We had to become the most trusted voice in the social sphere.’ This means that standard prepared tweets have already been officially signed off, while Stearns also has the ability to give the all clear to certain tweets.
‘One of the most popular, which got lots of retweets, advised people to use common sense and restraint when circulating images of the attack on social media,’ he says. ‘Another one said we would update information when it was verified. We were the official voice of the operation, but equally we have responsibility to give that information. We can’t just say Listen to us and then do nothing.’ Within an hour, information was available on the website telling people where they could upload images that could help the force, and press conferences were being held. ‘For those initial hours, we have a really clear plan of what we should be doing,’ he adds. ‘But you’ve got to remember that, in a major incident, everything is confused. For example, there were reports at Westminster that there were two men on the run.’
The first call about the attack on London Bridge came in after 10pm on a Saturday night. The force’s press bureau, comprising eight people, work 24 hours a day, seven days a week on a shift system. It was the first time that Metropolitan Police had deployed the Run, Hide, Tell message. ‘As it happened the perpetrators had been shot by that stage, but there was also some confusion,’ he adds. ‘But we start communicating within minutes once we are aware that something is happening. We don’t put out images. We’re not there to report. We’re there to inform.’