LONG READ: 14 comms lessons from the Manchester bomb attack

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.

google trends

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.

Mental resilience

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Communications as infographic

Greater Manchester used an infographic to explain the scope and depth of the investigation.

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.

Street art seen in Manchester. The bee – symbol of the city – is depicted in a heart made of hands ❤️🐝 #Manchester #streetart #ManchesterBee #Bee #McrBee #Mcr #WeStandTogether

A post shared by Greater Manchester Police (@gtrmanchesterpolice) on May 28, 2017 at 1:01pm PDT

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

FIRE ALERT: A slideshare and 12 things you can learn from fire comms

5870635462_d5997a095a_bSo, are you up to speed on how you’d handle the internal comms if two of your members of staff killed in a fire in a tower block? 

Or maybe you’d have it covered if there’s an explosion in a quiet street?

For the most part public sector communications can be pretty difficult. But with more than 500 deaths a year in fires in the UK there’s something uniquely challenging about handling the comms for a fire and rescue service. Especially at a time of tighter budgets.

How digital channels have utterly transformed communications is something that absolutely fascinates me. Forget six hours until the press conference. It’s now six minutes until the first tweet from an eyewitness and six hours until the first Facebook page set-up by residents.

You simply have to have social media in your emergency plan. It’s something I’ve written about before.

A few weeks back I was asked to speak at a FirePRO event in Manchester put together by the Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue. It was a rather useful event that gave an insight into the challenges. You can read the Storify the excellent Sam Thomas here. http://storify.com/samontheweb/fire-service-communicators.

Multi-agency use of digital media in a crisis

There’s a few small scale examples that have helped my thinking in Walsall. There’s the excellent use of social media by West Midlands Police and West Midlands Fire Service. It works because people on the ground have been given permission to tweet. So, when there’s an emergency there’s a network of people on the ground who can create an authoratative voice.

The approach in Walsall amongst police, council and other areas is simple. In a crisis, if it’s a police thing others with retweet. If it’s a council thing, others will share it.

The example of the Pheasey floods where 150 homes were flooded is an example of this. The presentation takes you through some of the tweets from that day.

Here’s 12 things that struck me.

1. There’s some cracking examples of social media case studies.  It’s at the sharp end and an ability to use different channels is essential.

2. In an emergency the first pictures will come from a resident. The Shaw gas explosion wiped out one house and damaged others. The first image didn’t come the day after in the evening paper. It came within minutes from a resident posting to Twitter.

3. Having a presence on Twitter helps get the message out in real time. Tweet within minutes and you’ll create an authoritative voice that people can home in on.

4. In an emergency think like a journalist. Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue sourced stories and content in the days after the explosion. The evacuated pets return. Families return.

5. In an emergency the traditional sign-off is dead. Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue kept partners up to speed but such was the speed that they needed to respond far quicker than waiting for sign-off from everyone concerned. The leisurely approach to news is over. Minutes count.

6. In a fatality put the organisation first and not the news media. When two firefighters died at a fire in Southampton Hampshire Fire & Rescue made a conscious decision to think about what they released. They decided to consider the needs of the dead employee’s work mates first. Then the needs of the organisation. Then the Press. That’s an important decision to make.

7. In a fatality put internal comms first. I’m massively impressed at the way Hampshire Fire & Rescure kept staff informed with things like daily updates from the inquest. That involved two comms officers rotating their coverage in the court.

8. There’s a need to have hard news skills in fire comms teams. Death sells. Death makes the media interested. To have the knowledge of how the media works and will react is an essential skill in this life threatening area of comms.

9. There’s a need to have digital skills in fire comms teams. With the changing news cycle social media is massively important.

10. Google hangouts are rather good. The line to Hampshire worked rather well.

11. Communications should be a job for specialists. It wasn’t an issue mentioned here but there’s a pressure in other parts of the country to create desk jobs for firefighters. Like PR. Or to make the cuts away from fire stations. Like in PR. But this is a fundamental mistake born from not knowing the value of proper communications. That’s actually an internal comms challenge for the whole of public sector communications.

12. It’s not just hard news. Much of the day-to-day centres around asking people to take greater care and not set fire to things. Digital communications can only be vital for this.

Hats off to speakers Bridget Aherne from Greater Manchester, Rachel Stanley and Dave Thackeray from Hampshire, Stuart Jackson and Paul Williams of Ice Creates and to Shelley Wright and Sam Thomas and her team for putting on an excellent event. There’s a seperate blog post about the Ice Creates work alone.

Picture credit

Fire hoses