Fast response calms riot fears

The riots that rocked London last summer caused widespread panic. Nicola Smith reveals how one council’s use of social media to stop the hysteria spreading led to it doubling its Twitter followers and boosting residents’ trust.


While riots raged in Tottenham in August 2011, quickly spreading to other London boroughs, Hackney Council emailed staff warning them to take extra care when walking between buildings and to remove ID cards from open display, while Croydon Council urged residents to stay indoors. But further removed from the trouble, in the borough of Hillingdon in west London, the local council’s media team was just as busy, working to defuse hysteria and quash gossip.

“The riots began happening the night before and as soon as we got in the next morning people were saying things like ‘Is it true Tesco in Hayes got set on fire?’, and ‘Are they shutting down Uxbridge?’” says Charlotte Stamper, corporate communications manager at Hillingdon Council. “We were saying, ‘no, where are you hearing all of this?’ We weren’t affected like other London boroughs – councils in Tottenham or Croydon would have been rolling out their emergency response plans because they were dealing with riots, violence and national media – but for us it was about managing risk, stamping out rumours and reassuring people.”

The morning after the riots began to spread, Hillingdon issued a message on the council website and via its Twitter feed and Facebook page, informing people that it was working with police to keep the borough safe and was carefully monitoring the situation. “We’d had 26 arrests in Hillingdon the night before following some small-scale vandalism and looting, but when I spoke to police they said that was quite normal,” says Stamper. “[But] because of the riots people saw it as unusual and were worried.”

The council also deployed its usual communication channels, although social media still proved a valuable supplier of information to traditional media.

She explains that if Hillingdon had been at the heart of the riots and required immediate action from residents, such as evacuation, the media team would have executed a wider push with regional media in London, as well as liaising with local community groups to disseminate information. “As it happened, London media were concentrated on those areas most affected such as Croydon and Tottenham.”

Police briefing

Hillingdon’s media relations team met with local police at 10am the morning after the riots began. Following the meeting, it was agreed that Hillingdon’s team would manage communications for the whole of the borough. “It was Sod’s Law that the police didn’t have a dedicated local communications person around at the time so we got together with the police and decided early on that we would do everything in the borough, working with one of their guys who wasn’t actually in a communications role. It was about getting things like that sorted early on and establishing the right roles and responsibilities.”

But not having a dedicated police communications officer to work with made Hillingdon’s task even harder. “The police resource was disappointing,” says Stamper. “It just so happens that their person was away and so we had to deal with one of the policemen who perhaps wasn’t as quick in getting back to us as he could have been, and didn’t understand the importance of telling us certain things.”

You need to research what people are saying about you. not just directly what people are tweeting to you

The council had six people handling the riots – two media relations officers, plus an assistant and three new media officers. “Someone was dealing with media enquiries; someone was liaising with stakeholders, including the police, and going to meetings throughout the day; and someone was updating social media,” says Stamper. “We worked with our web and new media officers to update statements online and ensure the information was in the right place on the website and easy for people to find.”

Ongoing tweets

While Stamper says a lot of the work involved answering the phone to simply say: ‘We don’t know’, or to quash rumours, social media continued to play a valuable role – in particular, Twitter. “After about 6pm we went home and were on call all evening but rather than the local paper having to ring us every half an hour or every time they heard a rumour, they just looked at our Twitter feed. They also linked their website to our Twitter feed, so it was always the most up-to-date information and there was no need for people to keep calling each other.”

The team also used Facebook, but Stamper was sensitive to the different ways in which the two social media sites operate. “We didn’t update Facebook as much because of the way it works – bombarding someone’s feed on Facebook is completely different to tweeting regularly during a crisis.” Instead, the team used Facebook to drive people to Twitter for the most up-to-date information. It proved an effective way of working. Within seven hours the number of people following Hillingdon on Twitter had doubled to around 2,000.

“We could see people referring to our feeds saying things like: ‘Don’t believe those rumours – look at the Hillingdon Twitter account’, so people trusted us and didn’t think we were spinning anything. People were very complimentary – we had lots of comments from people saying they loved being part of Hillingdon and felt part of the borough. They did value the communication.”

The Twitter account continued to be updated by Stamper and her team every half an hour from 6pm until midnight that night, reassuring people that everything was OK. “When it got to 10pm people were tweeting saying they were hearing rumours that certain things had been set alight, but we could say, ‘no, the police will contact us the moment anything happens’.”

Greater engagement

The use of Twitter during the riots did prove something of a pivotal moment for the council, particularly after so many more people began following Hillingdon on the social networking site. When the riots and the threat of them, subsided, the council continued to leverage it as a valuable communications channel. “People are engaging with us [it now has more than 4,600 followers]. They chat with us and have a laugh and it is informal – it’s not always things like, ‘I’ve got a pothole’. It is about what people are up to at the weekend for example, sharing information about local events.

“It isn’t a formal tool for us most of the time but when it came to the riots it was formal in the sense that it was absolutely serious in a friendly and trustworthy way.” Stamper says her team has had to deal with other crises since the riots last year and it has again used Twitter to link to statements and answer serious questions. “It was a very handy tool – it definitely made lots of residents aware of us during the riots.”

But despite the effectiveness of Twitter as a fast and succinct communications tool in a crisis, Stamper says that one of the key lessons learnt was the significant manpower required to use Twitter to full effect. “To do it well, you also need to search what people are saying [about the issue] – not just directly what people are tweeting to you. So doing those searches and seeing what people were saying all over the borough – we have a quarter of million residents and are the second largest borough, physically, in London – was resource-heavy but worth it to do it properly.”

As a result, the council has since encouraged everyone on the media relations team to familiarise themselves with Twitter. Stamper says the council now has enough officers on the team who are comfortable using the channel to impart news. “Rather than having one person on the team who is keen, it is now part of everyone’s job.”

The London riots prompted a coming together and, thanks largely to the role of social media, helped to establish Hillingdon Council as the bedrock of the community. “It was a really good opportunity to build trust with people – that is something that did come out of it.”

What went wrong?

On 4 August 2011, Tottenham resident Mark Duggan was shot dead by police. The incident sparked a big protest in London, which prompted the arrival of large numbers of police and several violent clashes with protestors. Police vehicles, a magistrates’ court, a double-decker bus and many civilian homes and businesses were also attacked. Overnight, looting took place locally and the rioting, looting and arson quickly spread to other London boroughs, lasting for four days.

Residents were understandably worried about the implications for Hillingdon and unqualified rumours were spreading unease and fear among the community.

What did Hillingdon Council do about it?

Hillingdon Council’s media relations team met with police the morning after the riots began and agreed to manage communications for the whole borough. Twitter was used to provide updated information at regular intervals, and the council website and Facebook were used to drive local people and press to Twitter. The team also provided its customer contact centre with a script to help inform and reassure residents who called for information.

What else could they have done?

The council’s media team were disappointed that the local police force didn’t have a dedicated communications person available, and instead they had to work with a policeman who wasn’t trained in the media. Therefore, they weren’t able to obtain the necessary information as quickly as they would have liked.

The media team also realised how resource-intensive it is to use Twitter optimally – carrying out regular searches on the riots relating to Hillingdon and proactively contacting local residents using Twitter, rather than simply responding to tweets addressed directly to the council account. It has since ensured that all of its media team are comfortable using Twitter.

What now?

Hillingdon Council’s Twitter followers doubled in just seven hours during the riots, growing from 1,000 to over 2,000. The media team capitalised on the opportunity to build trust with the local community and keep residents engaged using the social media tool, and it now has more than 4,600 followers. The media relations team has used Twitter to direct people to statements and provide information relating to other serious issues since the riots, as well as using it as a tool to encourage dialogue in the borough.

Swine flu

In April 2009, the first cases of swine flu affecting people in the London Borough of Hillingdon emerged. The council’s media relations team worked with the local primary care trust (PCT) to deal with what was a relatively low number of enquiries from local media, as well as briefing the lead local reporter about swine flu and the importance of maintaining a sense of perspective. Consequently, the first reports were accurate and balanced.

Anxiety over the H!N! virus led to panic when a young child died in the borough

Two months later, however, a six-year-old pupil at a local school tragically died, and there were persistent rumours that the cause of death was swine flu. The borough quickly became the focus of national media attention. “It came to our attention in the morning when a link between the council and the school came to us and said a young girl had died of swine flu,” says Charlotte Stamper, corporate communications manager at Hillingdon Council. “We quickly established that a young girl had died, and in the afternoon someone from our media relations team went down to the school with our director of education to meet parents and press.”

The cause of death had not been confirmed at this point, so the council felt it was best placed to speak to the media – rather than a health professional – on behalf of the school. “Lots of press, including Sky News and BBC, turned up at the school gates wanting a statement,” says Stamper. The council’s communications lead briefed the media outside the school, while the press office was inundated with calls and requests for further information. To manage this, two press officers were taken off normal duties to be the points of contact. Press officers also manned an out-of-hours enquiries service on a rota basis.

“I remember the phone was ringing off the hook with people wanting us to confirm that the girl had died of swine flu, but we couldn’t confirm it as we didn’t know,” says Stamper. “The little girl’s parents were obviously in a complete state and that was our priority – to support the parents and make sure anything that did come out in the media was a true reflection of what had happened.”

As anxiety about swine flu increased, the media relations team had to manage frequent requests for briefings, staff memos and information. “We were under pressure to confirm this big breaking national story that would set the standard for swine flu in future and we just couldn’t do it. It was a lot of phone bashing and answering calls to journalists and confirming what we did and most importantly, what we didn’t know.”

It was also essential to strike a balance between providing media with timely and accurate information while protecting the victim’s family and respecting their wishes. “I remember one national paper calling us to say they had been given a really grainy photo of the little girl and could we get anything better,” says Stamper. “I went through the PCT, who had forged a close link with the family and the parents said they didn’t want a photo being run anywhere – and that is their prerogative. I called this journalist back and she said she was just going to sit outside the house and wait. It was dealing with things like that all day.”

The council managed to ease the media’s demand for information by pressing the PCT to agree a statement with the family so that the media would leave the family to grieve in peace. Eventually the media frenzy diminished. “It transpired that the little girl didn’t die from swine flu – she died from sceptic shock after tonsillitis,” says Stamper. “But it was quite a while afterwards before that was known.”

The council’s media relations team learnt lessons from the experience, not least about taking faster action. “I think we could have got down to the school a bit quicker because the parents and children were worried whether swine flu was infectious, so everyone was very stressed out,” says Stamper. “We did go there early afternoon to support the head teacher and reassure the local community, but we would do that quicker next time.”



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