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When an incident occurred at Oxford Circus Tube station in late November 2017, the social media team at the Metropolitan Police swung into action. Within minutes, @metpoliceuk had tweeted that its officers were at the scene and advised people to avoid the area. Shortly afterwards, its tweet to more than 1.1 million followers indicated that police were treating the incident as terror-related.
The tweets were all part of the Metropolitan Police’s updated major incident plan. ‘We know we have to be quick because information is now available within seconds of an incident happening,’ explains Ed Stearns, the outgoing head of media at the Metropolitan Police. ‘We need to be seen as the trusted voice within the social sphere and that is what we are.’
It did not matter that the incident was not a terrorist attack. ‘We can say we are treating it as a terrorist incident, because you can row back from that,’ he explains. ‘It can take a long time to declare a terrorist attack. You’ve got to remember that in a major incident everything is very confused. We have just got to try to give as much clarity about the stuff we know.’
Within seven minutes of the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge last March, @metpoliceuk had tweeted that it was aware that an incident had occurred and that officers were dealing with it. ‘We had prepared messaging to go out to fill that void. We were also obviously thinking about traditional media and held press conferences. Any information we can put out, we will put out publicly by Twitter. It meant we were the most retweeted source, which shows that people were using us as a trusted source,’ says Stearns.
‘The command and control unit knew that communicating quickly was important. One of the most popular tweets, which I signed off, was Please use common sense and restraint when you are circulating images on social media. Another popular one was We will update you as soon as we can when information is verified, which made the point that there will be rumours going around but we are a trusted source.’
Before releasing any information to the public, Stearns’ team must get clearance from the officers in charge of the operation. During an incident, Stearns delegates a colleague to the control room, so that communications is at the heart of the response and can provide accurate information in a timely manner. ‘Within an hour [of the Westminster attack], we had put out information about a website that people could upload images to, which could help with the investigations. We ask for their details, as they may be key witnesses. They may also put the images out on social media, but we now have an evidentiary record, which is really important. We had also said that we were treating it as a terrorist attack; that has to be called by the counter-terrorism command. It’s an important fact that we can put out.’
The first hour is key, and Stearns’ 70 person team has rehearsed every aspect of its response to a major incident. Everyone knows their role. The terror attack at London Bridge occurred after 10pm on a Saturday night, but Metropolitan Police runs a 24 hour press bureau staffed by eight. The duty officer knew exactly what was required, although initially there was some confusion that there was another related incident in South London. ‘It was a Saturday night. There are always incidents on a Saturday night,’ says Stearns. In the aftermath of the Borough Market attacks, the police deployed ‘run, hide, tell’ messaging for the first time, which required clearance from command. ‘It was a reminder to people of how to act if they are in that situation. As it happened, the perpetrators had been shot by that stage but there was confusion about whether others were around.’ A stock of pre-prepared graphics are also ready to use if necessary, many of which then get reused by the media which gives them even greater reach.
‘We originally had a major incident plan, which was pretty big, and had been added to over the years, as internal structures changed and people started to consume media in different ways. It ended up as something unmanageable and difficult to use. Obviously events started happening in Europe, especially Paris, and the threat was feeling different in the way that terrorists were operating. The fact that they were willing to die was different. We needed to rip it up and start again,’ explains Stearns. ‘We made it slimmer. But the most important thing we did was to make sure that we were seen internally as an operational resource. Historically, we were seen as the department that sorted out the headache that the media were going to be. Now it was recognised that communications can change behaviours, could ultimately potentially save lives, and could really help an operation be effective. We sold it that way and made sure our plan worked that way.’
He adds that, in major incidents, the team now has ‘certain things that it works towards’. ‘We work towards doing a press statement outside [under the iconic Scotland Yard rotating sign] in front of the cameras, so we will work to get more information for that. We did a briefing a few days after London Bridge about what we had found, and one of our counter intelligence officers did quite a large briefing on the fire bombs that had been used. You roll out information as it comes but there are some things that we can work towards. For example, if we are making arrests around the country we want to put that out proactively, so we would liaise with other forces on that. After Borough Market, we made some arrests in South Wales, so we put out lines on what we were doing. Some things in a police investigation have to be kept completely confidential, but we have to keep asking ourselves Is there a reason we can’t tell the public?’
After its overhaul of the major incident plan, the team ran ‘table top’ exercises where everybody worked through scenarios to check that the communications response would work. Stearns has also ensured that communications is represented when police officers do their own exercises. Indeed, the weekend before the Westminster Bridge attack, Stearns and members of his team participated in an exercise on the Thames. ‘That was also the first time we exercised our internal communications response. The Met Police is London’s biggest employer, with 45,000 staff, and frankly people want to see internally what we put out externally. But it is also important to flag up what HR is doing in terms of offering support to people affected by the incidents.’
The team also ran through scenario exercises with the media. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Stearns had visited Paris to discover the challenges faced by the local police force in dealing with the media. He had anticipated that there may have been difficulties with imposing media blackouts, but instead found that the main issue had been journalists trying to contact the terrorists on their mobile phones. ‘We hadn’t even thought about that,’ he concedes. It was an issue that could then be addressed during the media ‘table tops’.
The relationship seems to work. For example, after the attack at Borough Market, the police asked the media not to release the names of the terrorists. ‘You can’t hang on to that for a long time, but while the perpetrators may be dead, there may be action that we need to take against their associates,’ he explains. ‘The media also has a lot to weigh up on what they can publish and what they can’t, what they have verified and what they haven’t. We are not there to police taste and decency.’
He adds: ‘These incidents can go on for days or even weeks; funerals may need to be held. There are communications issues around families; we have family liaison officers but the bereaved may have media issues that they want help with. There may be question marks over identities so we have to work with the coroner. It is almost more difficult as time goes on. Blame starts pretty quickly. Why did it happen? How did it happen? Post the attacks, we went to Critical which meant that soldiers were going into buildings allowing more armed police on the street. There’s quite a lot to do to explain all that. It almost gets more complicated as time goes by. We had a press conference after the Westminster attack, in which an American tourist died; 13 family members wanted to attend. We had to help them, take them through it and provide the structure to do so. The team here are fantastic.’
The Met Police has used Twitter since 2011, when it launched an events account to talk to demonstrators. But it was after the London riots in 2011 that the flagship @MetPoliceUK corporate account was established. ‘The corporate account is a broadcast account,’ explains Stearns. ‘We have well over one million followers now and it would really clog it up if we were two-way. But everything underneath that account is about conversation.’
Each one of London’s 32 boroughs, which have individual police forces, has its own Twitter account, as do the Met Police’s 629 neighbourhood offices and most services, such as Marine Policing with @MPSontheWater and almost 26,000 followers. ‘I think we operate the biggest network of social accounts within an organisation,’ says Stearns. Some commanders also run accounts while a Twitter feed is now part of the command and control centre, where 999 and 101 calls are dealt with. It uses software to identify issues being tweeted about that may require police assistance, such as anti social behaviour.
The force also operates a Facebook account, which has more than 176,000 followers, which is used to promote campaigns, share stories and videos and also to provide more detailed information in a major incident or create an emotional connection. For example, within hours of the Westminster attack, it became clear that PC Keith Palmer had been killed. ‘We videoed the flag at Scotland Yard being brought down to half mast, and put it on Facebook. It was massively shared. It showed the human part of what we were dealing with, it showed how we were reacting as a force and it was an important bit of content,’ explains Stearns.
By contrast, the Met Police’s website is much more about customer service, such as information on how to report crime or a traffic incident, find a police station and how to join the force. ‘We have a news site, which we update in the press office, but people get their running information from social media,’ says Stearns. ‘People use websites to do transactions.’
Having worked through two major terrorist incidents this year, are there any lessons that Stearns and his team have learned? ‘It is important to debrief to understand how things have mapped out and to reflect on the prepared messaging to see if it sat right,’ he says. ‘We have to ask Can we change anything? But I think the preparation in making communications an important part of the operation was key for us.’