There are now two forms of crisis management. Dealing with what is actually happening and dealing with what is being said about what is actually happening. The second is created and exacerbated by social media and how agencies respond to it is critical.
This morning, tragedy struck Central London where a helicopter appears to have collided with a crane and then fallen onto buildings and cars below.
The full circumstances of this are not yet known and will be fully investigated.
Once upon a time, news of this incident would have been slow to emerge. Television programmes would not have been interrupted with a News Flash and most of the country would have been blissfully unaware of it even happening until they caught up with a scheduled news bulletin.
The advent of 24 hour rolling news meant that news would have broken faster. Perhaps a headline – a rolling banner “Reports of helicopter crash in Central London – more to follow” and then the news agencies would have sent reporters rushing to the scene. In the meantime we might have heard phone interviews with eye witnesses who rang in and eventually we would have had live pictures of the aftermath.
Even then you would have to have been watching a news channel to even know it had happened.
Now – we have Social Media. Within seconds of the helicopter coming down there were pictures being broadcast across Twitter. When you look at the pictures you can see many people stood around filming it or photographing it. These pictures would very quickly be added to social media sites along with commentary from people who were actually there.
Within minutes it goes viral. Within minutes my timeline was full of it and I doubt very much whether any of the emergency services had even arrived at the scene.
Here was live, unedited, unrestricted, eye witness coverage being broadcast worldwide within a matter of moments.
This was going to be a massive test of how the various emergency services dealt not only with the scene itself but also to contain the rumours and stories which would be spreading like a virus across the Internet and onto smartphones.
This was a case where no amount of “vanilla tweeting” was going to work. Messages needed to reflect the reality which was being broadcast by witnesses. In short – the emergency services could not contain the message.
A helicopter had crashed onto the streets of London and here are pictures of the flaming wreckage taken seconds later. In effect thousands of people who weren’t there have become virtual eyewitnesses.
Radio silence from the authorities was not an option.
I tweeted, shortly after the first few accounts hit my timeline, that this was going to be a massive test of how emergency services responded to the social media tsunami they were trying to catch up with.
From where I sat – they did magnificently. I do not profess to have been following everyone who was watching or tweeting but what I very rapidly got was a picture of emergency services in control and *engaging* with the public.
The first I saw was from the MPS in the Sky who confirmed that an aircraft had come down. Then, in response to concerned tweets, they confirmed that it was not a police helicopter. The London Ambulance Service had to do likewise.
Followers were bothered enough to check that none of the staff were involved. If that doesn’t show that followers *care* for those they follow I don’t know what does. It was heartwarming to see but also massively reassuring that the tweeters answered the question.
What happened then was that various affected MPS boroughs such as @mpswandsworth started tweeting sensitive, informative updates. Not only that but they began retweeting each others tweets.
Very quickly the timeline became “cross pollinated” by tweets from BTP, London Ambulance Service, rail companies – none of whom I am following – but which were being sent on by those I do follow.
Having seen the news of the actual crash break “live” on my phone via Twitter, it really was a matter of minutes before I, hundreds of miles away, had a very clear picture that the emergency services were attending, in control and talking to one another.
Rumour is rampant on Twitter but that was addressed with some messages from the authorities telling us that terrorism was not suspected.
I knew which railway stations were closed; which bus routes were affected; which were open and that BTP were on hand at Vauxhall to help people who were lost or distressed.
As far as I am concerned the use of SM by the various agencies was exemplary and they are to be congratulated.
What is even better is that I doubt very much that even half of these tweets came via a press office. Many were coming from quick thinking officers and staff who got the message exactly right and knew whose other messages to share.
No time for press strategy meetings – no briefing – just “do” and they did it well. It is great that they did that, that they felt confident and empowered enough to do it and were allowed to do it.
In some forces – if this had happened out of hours – it could have taken an age to get into the narrative. Especially when the only person trusted with access to a force Twitter account is an on call press officer.
The media are now pouring over the wreckage for their story but this is their investigation – it is not “the narrative.”
“The narrative” is immediate, live, happening now and it cannot be clearer that the emergency services need to help shape the story accurately and quickly.
To a point where people can compare the unedited pictures and eye witness accounts with the “official” message and think – “yeah – that adds up.”
Get this wrong and you look like the Iraqi General who proudly proclaimed to the TV cameras that there were “no US tanks in Bagdad” as they zoomed in to watch the First Armoured Division proudly bearing the Stars and Stripes roll into the square behind him.
I have spoken to senior officers before about the need to interact on SM immediately and realistically when something major happens. Official messages can now be easily undone by pictures which appear to show something else. The official messages need to be right, they need to respond to developing pictures and accounts and they need to be fast.
As far as the agencies involved were concerned it appeared flawless. Elsewhere it was less so.
The main stream media was using Twitter to break the news – again; appealing for footage or witnesses to speak to or to boast that they were “first there” and had some form of scoop.
The main thing which spoiled it for me was the number of commentators who tried to make a political point as this was developing. Some from sources who should arguably know better.
This was not the time to be saying “this crash proves police are worth more than £19k.”
It is insensitive, inappropriate and wrong.
This week there is an important meeting at Bramshill where the future of police use of social media will be discussed.
For an example of how it could and should work (the inappropriate commentary aside) the delegates need look no further than what happened on Twitter this morning.