Four people were killed when a terrorist struck at the Palace of Westminster. Public sector people on the ground responded. But public sector comms people backed them up to warn and inform.
by Dan Slee
When a terror attack struck London the people who ran towards it were members of the public sector.
We’re used to seeing police act when a man with a gun is on the loose. Brave? Yes. That’s what they’re trained for, isn’t it?
But nurses and doctors running from a nearby hospital towards the noise? That floored me.
Underpaid, taken for granted, criticised and budget cut to the bone the UK public sector is a hard place to work. It has none of the glamour of the private sector. But when chips are down they deliver.
We should reflect at the loss of the families of those affected and injured. Police at the scene and the nurses who risk their lives should get full credit. But the locked-down civil servant who then returned to work the next day also serve. So to do the public sector communicators who responded to keep the public informed.
For students of how the media works, Stephen Waddington has produced an excellent summary of how the attack happened. From the first frightened tweets from those at the scene to rumour and hate speech. You can see it here. It got me to thinking of the role public sector comms played.
Here is a bit of background.
The London terror attack response began with burning cows
In 2001, the UK farming industry was devastated by foot and mouth disease. Thousands of cattle were destroyed and generations of farmers’ work was ended in minutes. For days the country seemed paralysed. Government agencies, the British Army, councils and others all worked across each other. Many left hands didn’t know what many right hands were doing. Enough. The result was the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 which sets out who will respond about what. The key principle is to ‘warn and inform.’
A piece of law ensured that a bunch of people who don’t always work with each other that well now would. In a geographic area council, police, fire, NHS and others work together in local resilience forums. A dry name for your Parish-pump COBRA.
Emergency planners know where the bodies will go
Every council has an Emergency Planning officer. They have plans in place for when things go wrong from a Second World War hand grenade to a major terror attack. They’ll know how to respond, who will respond and if needs be where the temporary mortuaries will be.
“See those emergency planning officers?” I was told when I started to work in local government in the West Midlands. “They even have a plan for an inland tsunami on the local lake.”
It’s true. They have.
Emergency comms isn’t crisis comms
My good friend Ben Proctor has devoted much of his life to the study of emergency comms. A former head of comms he also works as a volunteer for the Stand Task Force. These are volunteers from around the world who act globally in support of major incidents.
Ben is very clear that emergency comms isn’t crisis comms. Emergency comms is lives being at risk. Crisis comms is a company’s reputation. As he has blogged, that’s quite a big difference.
Practice in peacetime when cars aren’t on fire
One reason why the public sector communicators rose to the challenge during the terror incident was the planning and practice.
Just over 12-months ago the public sector led by London Fire Brigade ran a four-day exercise involving 1,000 casualties. A collapsed tower block and crushed tube trains were the mocked-up scenario. Talking to communicators afterwards, they learned lots.
The riots of 2011 where social media emerged also played a role. The public sector realised that when the cars were burning it was on Twitter that the news was breaking. Bright police officers realised they could reach people directly by social media to shoot-down rumour and reassure.
Today, the starting point for an emergency is Twitter. As London Ambulance Service said this week at our masterclass when a crisis happens the last thing they do in the comms team is answer the phone. They go straight to Twitter and communicate with journalists and the public at the same time. That would have been an amazing thing 10 years ago. Today? That’s common sense.
Six tweets that show how to respond in an emergency
1. A marker holding statement and the death of the press release
By putting out a brief statement on Twitter London Ambulance Service put two markers down. First, they knew and are responding. Secondly, it sets them out as a trusted source for further information. The days of waiting six hours for the full picture and a press release are long, long gone.
2. Ask people nicely not to circulate graphic content
When a plane crashed into traffic passers-by shared graphic images of debris, body parts and burnt corpses in a car with the number plate clearly visible.
At first, they admonished those who shared the images. But after a backlash they realised it was better to appeal to people’s better side. Which is the same approach that the Metropolitan Police took:
3. Signpost to people to the right place
The best meeting I ever took part in during my time in the public sector took place a few weeks after the 2011 riots. Police, bloggers and council comms sat round a table to work out how we could do a better job. No media were invited. Why? Because their print-first next day communication strategy was exposed as flat footed. The hyperlocal bloggers who were fielding rumour were the frontline of news.
One thing became clear. The bloggers told us that they knew the council wasn’t responsible for the emergency. But they didn’t understand why council accounts online were silent.
“Just signpost us to where we can find out what’s going on,” one told us.
So, we drew up a strategy of if the emergency was police-led, the council would point towards them.
As Westminster Council did here:
4. Speak to journalists directly by making the update public
One of the biggest changes in dealing with an emergency is how public sector comms people deal with the Press.
Post the updates on Twitter and you won’t have 20 phone calls on the same subject.
5. Reassure in realtime
As I’ve been banging on about, video in realtime works. So, a message of reassurance works.
6. It is your job to combat rumour
Buzzfeed ran an excellent post on the rumour and fake news that circulated in the wake of the attack. But here’s the thing. While it is useful for the public sector to challenge rumour we all have a role to play in not circulating it.
Dan Slee is co-founder of comms2point0.