Walking back from a late night meeting at Walsall Council House a police car sped past with sirens and blue lights on.
Absent mindedly I tweeted that I wondered if this was @pcstanleywmp. He replied:
— Richard Stanley (@PCStanleyWMP) April 23, 2012
A short time later @pcmarshallwmp chipped in:
— Liam Marshall (@PCMarshallWMP) April 23, 2012
That’s just a bit mad. But in 2012, in Walsall in the West Midlands it’s not as surprising as all that. As a local government press officer, emergencies land in our lap. Even when they’re not directly ours. Here’s some thoughts on social media in an emergency.
Bigging up West Midlands Police on Twitter
For some time the West Midlands Police force have been trail blazing with their use of digital channels to connect to the people they serve.
The payback comes in many ways but when the chips are down it comes by having a ready made channel to shoot down rumours. Andrew Brightwell from Public I blogged a cracking piece on how Wolverhampton Police joined with bloggers to help explode myths. You can read it here.
One of those bloggers was Steph Jennings of Podnosh whose site wv11.co.uk was in the frontline against the rumours worked around the clock on Facebook and Twitter. Their Facebook page drew 200,000 hits in a week. That’s just an incredible figure.
Post riot lessons
Last summer, not long after the dust settled there was an informal meeting between police, local government and bloggers to see what worked.
It became clear that in a time of crisis people just wanted an authoratative voice. The role of local government comms people was not to stand by but to retweet on Twitter police messages. That’s a big step to take but an important one.
Lessons in rumour scotching
At the excellent Bluelightcamp In Manchester there was a brilliant session from researcher Farida Vis.
She spoke about analysing six rumours and how they went away. Heard the one about the tiger on the loose from London Zoo? Or Birmingham Children’s Hospital being attacked?
Farida mapped all of the tweets and drew some interesting conclusions. First, you sometimes need to scotch rumours repeatedly. Especially if they’ve gone viral. Secondly, often rumours are shot down by trusted people online. In teh case of Birmingham Children’s hospital, it was Andy Mabbett – @pigsonthewing on Twitter – who pointed out that the hospital was directly opposite Steehouse Lane Police station, so it probably wasn’t true.
She also posed the interesting point that we need to identify trusted people in the community for times of crisis. That’s an interesting thought but I’m not sure if we’re there yet.
Post riot lessons put into practice
Within weeks that lesson was put to the test in Walsall when 150 homes were flooded in Streetly.
The first mention on Twitter was at 6.13am when PC Rich Stanley then tweeted that there was flooding.
As the picture built, confirmation that 150 homes were involved was tweeted at 7.54am.
Major Flooding from Barr Beacon Reservoir water main affecting housing estate in Streetly..Approx 150 homes..Aldridge Rd/Blackwood Rd estate
— Erdington Fire (@ErdingtonFire) November 12, 2011
There was misinformation from people but what was striking was that this was drowned out by the multiple retweets of the police messages.
On election day in Walsall in 2012, part of the town centre was evacuated by police because of a security alert. We retweeted the @walsallpolice stream which did a great job in keeping people up to speed. It wasn’t anything major in the context of other events. But it did have a major impact on the town.
There’s a storify here.
SEVEN things you can do for public sector crisis comms
Here are the lessons learned from the Walsall and Wolverhampton police – blogger debrief, from practical experience as well as from Blue Light Camp. Feel free to agree or disagree.
1. Talk to your colleagues in the emergency services. When it’s not busy. Establish if and how they are using Twitter.
2. When an incident starts, use Twitter’s search function to see what people are saying.
3. Use Twitter’s search functions to seek out what fire, police and any other official channels are saying.
4. Retweet the official streams only. Monitor but don’t RT non-official streams. They may or may not be accurate.
5. Think web first. Before you get the press release signed off agree 140 characters to put onto Twitter. Even if it’s a holding statement. It’s fine to say we’re investigating reports of a chemical leak at a council building if that’s what you are doing.
6. Scotch rumours before they spread.
7. Keep scotching rumours. It may take several times as rumours re-ignite.
There is one truly brilliant thing about Harrogate copper @hotelalpha9 on Twitter.
It’s not the fact PC Ed Rogerson has a truly cool Hawaii Five O sounding name online.
It’s not even because the police are using social media. Although, that is great.
What’s really brilliant, is that he has succeeded in putting a human touch on what is by definition a large organisation.
In North Yorkshire there are 1,500 police officers serving 750,000 people. @hotelalpha9 is able to connect with his beat particular brilliantly.
Here is an example: “Residents of Camwell Terrace – there’s a meeting for you at 10am tomorrow at St Andrews Church. Let’s make your street the best it can be.”
“@annicrosby Hi, I’m following you as I saw you location is ‘Harrogate’. I follow anybody from Harrogate as I want to communicate better.”
“Just dealt with some criminal damage. Paint thrown over a car.”
It’s stuff specific to a small area. It’s in effect hyperlocal blogging for an organisation.
The debate about whether or not police should use digital is a short one (answer: yes).
On that topic there is an inspiring and groundbreaking blog by Chief Inspector Mark Payne of West Midlands Police – on Twitter as @CIPayneWMPolice – that deserves a special mention: Police and social media: Why are we waiting?
But what it really opens up is how best to use this stuff to connect.
By all means have a central presence with a corporate logo on.
However, in Twitter 2.0 shouldn’t we start putting the individual to the fore?
If we call a council, government – or a big company for that matter – you are often met with a name when you ring or write. Why not do that with social media too?
Recently, when Walsall Council contacted a protest group on Facebook an officer set up a dedicated work profile to make contact. It wasn’t a logo. It was a real person that made that connection. On behalf of the council.
So, isn’t there a case the closer we get to an organisation hyperlocal blogging we start allowing the individual to be the organisation’s face? They are in real life over the phone and at other contact points. Why not in social media too?
This may well create new headaches. Would staff be prepared for the potential for brickbats, for example?
How about if they leave?
Then there is the usual ‘what if they say bad things to us?’
But let’s not forget that these dilemmas also apply offline too.
A possible three tier organisational model for Twitter and other social media platforms:
1. THE CORPORATE VOICE WITH NAMED INDIVIDUAL. Eg @anycouncil. Biog: news from Any Council updated by Darren email@example.com. Content: general tweets.
2. THE SERVICE AREA. Eg @anycouncil_libraries Biog: updated by Kim. Kim@any.gov.uk. Content: niche tweets from a specific service area. More specific info for fans of that subject. Eg author visits, reminders to take out a holiday book.
3. THE HYPERLOCAL INDIVIDUAL Eg @artscentreguy Biog: Bob from Any Arts Centre. Content: More personal updates from an individual first and foremost who just happens y’know to work for a council. Eg. Twitpics of rehearsals, behind the scenes shots and listings info.