There’s a school of thought that public sector comms people are a bunch of non-jobs who are a waste of money.
Their budget would be better spent on replacing windows or filling potholes, the argument goes.
Those who make that argument? They know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Empty tins sound the loudest. Where were they when a terror attack struck Manchester? They were nowhere. Wheras the Public Sector in Manchester just as the people did responded.
As Google Trends shows, the spike of searches for Manchester and Ariana Grande whose concert was attacked is marked.
Where were the Public Sector communications people?
Late at night and for days after they were communicating with the stunned Greater Manchester public of 2.8 million, 65 million UK citizens and billions around the globe.
Thoughts should absolutely be with those who were killed and affected by the explosion. Thoughts too with the police, ambulance, fire and local government people who responded first.
But as a communicator who has worked eight years in local government I’m absolutely sparing a thought to the comms people too. There are some people in the industry who would have folded faced with this challenge. That’s understandable. A terror attack is a massive event. The response from Greater Manchester Police, Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue, Transport for Manchester, the Combined Authority, both Mayor’s teams, all parts of the NHS, Manchester City Council and others was sterling. No channel seemed to go AWOL. No-one seemed to have left a scheduled tweet in place.
Professional. Informative and well judged. Not just in the aftermath but in the coming together and moments of reflection.
This is what gold standard communications looks like.
Clear, timely precise information under intense pressure for a sustained period.
Class, be like them.
When people talk about ‘non-jobs’ ask them how they’d communicate a terror attack and its aftermath. You’ll get a non-answer.
However, I was reminded by Stephen Waddington’s post about mental resilience in communications. It’s a timely post that asks people to look after their mental health. In the aftermath of huge stress, I’d hope that the organisations and individuals involved bear this in mind. They’re bright people. I’m sure they will.
Here are some standout lessons
The Public Sector is not a single thing but a number of organisations that serve a community. In the aftermath of the attack, organisations shared vital updates. Fire shared police updates, for example. The Mayor’s office shared a newspaper’s frontpage, for example. The strength of the Public Sector is the long reach and broad digital footprint. In an emergency share it.
There’s no question that the public far wider than Manchester identified with the content and amplified it.
Communications to say ‘you can get updates over here.’
One lessons of communicating in an emergency is for the Public Sector to signpost people to where the up-to-date information is. This happened effectively in the Westminster attack and did so again in Manchester. Here, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue acknowledged the incident and pointed people to Greater Manchester Police.
Communications to say ‘we’re on it’ part I
The Ambulance Trust dealing with the attack communicated via Twitter to say they were aware and ask people not to call on other matters unless it was an emergency.
Due to the incident in Manchester, please only call us for life threatening emergencies at this time. Thank you.
— NWAS NHS Trust (@NWAmbulance) May 22, 2017
Communications to say ‘we’re on it’ part II
Police acknowledged the incident as it was breaking. This is text book stuff. By doing this they flag-up they are aware and where to follow for updates. The days of waiting to sign-off a press release at a time of emergency is long over.
Police responded to reports of an incident at Manchester Arena. Please stay away from the area. More details to follow….
— G M Police (@gmpolice) May 22, 2017
Communication as a sharable image with need-to-know information
There’s every chance this image wasn’t made by the Public Sector itself. But the lesson this does show is that the key public information in the hours after the event WILL be shared as an image.
— RaevennanHusbandes (@AfroThunderRae) May 23, 2017
Communications as part of the investigation
Content taken at the time and in the aftermath helps police piece together what happened. This tweet encourages people to send their footage in.
— Terrorism Police UK (@TerrorismPolice) May 23, 2017
A video response and information update
As the aftermath became recovery, the issue turned to transport and what would be running. Video was used here.
Communications as mental health support for an entire city
If more than 20,000 people were at the Manchester Arena many more would have faced an anxious wait to see if their children, family or friends were okay. Updates to say ‘it’s not okay’ were widely shared.
— Richard Preece (@drrichardp) May 28, 2017
Communications to say ‘we’re bouncing back.’
A week after the attack, sporting events took place across the city. As this video from Mayor Andy Burnham shot and posted within minutes shows, it’s a city refusing to give in.
— Mayor Andy Burnham (@MayorofGM) May 28, 2017
Communication as poetry
Tony Walsh was invited to read one his poems not just in the event after the attack but at the Great Manchester Run.
Communication as an image to convey breaking news
Greater Manchester Police staged a series of raids and arrests across Manchester in the days after the event. A simple update and sharable image kept people informed.
Latest update pic.twitter.com/f4dF5aUto0
— G M Police (@gmpolice) May 26, 2017
Communications as infographic
Greater Manchester used an infographic to explain the scope and depth of the investigation.
Timeline of events on Mondays attack at the Arena pic.twitter.com/DINIv8KS7L
— G M Police (@gmpolice) May 28, 2017
Communication to say ‘we’re human too.’
If it’s okay to be not okay, it’s also okay to show your staff as being human. A Facebook timeline image shows the Greater Manchester Chief Constable embracing a member of the public. It’s genuine, warm and isn’t staged.
Communications as a captured Instagram street picture
An image on the street spotted and photographed by Greater Manchester Police and shared to their Instagram feed.
Sharing other people’s content
Manchester City Council shared this fund raising link. It doesn’t have to be your own content. It doesn’t even have to be Public Sector.
Making a city proud
So proud of my daughter Jordan – a Critical Care nurse in Manchester dealing with fallout of last nights attack. Our services do us proud! pic.twitter.com/XgXT3bqsNO
— Gary Sumner (@gsum66) May 23, 2017
Fire, storm, pestilence or just a burst water main, in an emergency local government can swing into action.
In the UK it’s known as emergency planning and in the US emergency management. Whichever part of the world you are in it’s the part of the public sector that has plans for every eventuality.
For a comms person, it’s often only when there’s a problem you’ll speak to the emergency planners. Don’t let that happe n. Make a pact with yourself. Go and speak to them as soon as you can and sort out what to do with social media. Here is why.
At localgovcamp in Birmingham this year Ben Proctor, who runs the Like A Word consultancy, ran an excellent session on emergency planning and the social web. It’s something he writes about well too. His blog is well worth a look.
Catherine Howe, who does things with Public I, made the closing but clear point: “Whatever you do put social media in your emergency plan.”
Of course, I reflected smugly, my council has. There’s 3,000 people following the our corporate Twitter stream. What could go wrong?
Overnight there had been a minor incident that I’d missed on my Blackberry which had ran flat. Thankfully, it wasn’t more serious. But it showed very clearly where we’re blindsided.
If only comms people have the keys to the Facebook and Twitter things can easily fall down. What’s the answer? Go to where the audience is. Give them access to the corporate account. They’re generally very sensible people and know what to say. If the situation develops you can always step in.
So, what sort of role does social media play in an emergency?
In a true disaster the web falls down before SMS. But people are instinctively running to it.
A tornado in Joplin – In in the Mid West US town when a milewide tornado struck, the community rallied by building their own space on the web. At first this was to search for missing people and then as the disaster turned to recovery it charted that phase too. The moral? People have the tools like this or this community Facebook page to build things for themselves. They’re not waiting for the council to do it. They just will.
The EDL in Birmingham – When the far right English Defence League first rallied they used Twitter to spread misinformation. The police monitored by were powerless. Third time they came they had an officer monitoring Twitter, Mark Payne checking each claim and then re-butting within minutes point by point.
Facebook in Queensland – When floods struck 3,000 comments a day were posted on the Queensland Police site. It took a 24-hour effort to monitor, explain and rebuff wild rumour.
The report into the Queendsland event singled out social media as part of a range of channels to take action with. Ben Proctor has blogged on it here. A key finding is to talk, prepare and practice. That’s as just as much relevant to comms people as anyone.
An interim report into the Queensland flood made a series of comments and recommendations. On social media it stated:
“As it may be possible for the public to post information directly to an official social media site there are concerns that a member of the public may post false information. For example, inaccurate information was posted on the Western Downs Regional Facebook page. However, where there are enough staff to monitor content social media can be a useful tool to respond to rumours in the community.”
Seven things comms people need to know
1. Share the keys – Give emergency planning an awareness of what social media is, encourage them to monitor and respond and give them the keys to the corporate feeds.
2. You can’t control the message – As if the main message of our times is needed to be repeated.
3. There’s a shorter turn around time to respond – Speed may be of the essence.
4. It’s not just about social media – It’s one channel of several. Important and growing but don’t think that everyone will be on Facebook.
5. It’s good for combating rumours – As a comms person that can save yourself time.
6. Journalists will follow and like – You can save time and effort by creating channels of communications.
7. If the balloon goes up it’ll take resources – Social media is free is a bit of a myth. The platform is free. The time spent to manage it, listen and update isn’t. The lessons of Queensland are that it can take up resources. But you do get valuable return on investment for doing so. Regular monitoring when there is a crisis is absolutely critical. Don’t link to a press release and forget about it.