December List: UK Police Superintendent understands the power virtual engagement

Post by: Kim Stephens

8 August 2011 London riots - police push riote...

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For the most part, my blog focuses on  emergency management, I don’t tend to delve into the use of the social media by law enforcement as much. However, there are lessons emergency managers can learn from this community when it comes to the use of social networks for crisis communications and citizen engagement. This is why my next choice for the top #SMEM example for 2011 is not only a law enforcement officer, but an international example as well: West Midland’s PD Superintendent, Mark Payne.

Police throughout the UK have been heavily criticized for how they responded to summer 2011 riots that spread across England. Their failures were debated in the international media for months (especially the debate about whether or not social media sites should have been shut down); internal After Action reviews  identified many areas for improvement. The Guardian article, “Revealed: How Police lost control of summer riots in first crucial 48 hours,” describes the Police Federation report which found one of the top concerns to be communication failures that resulted in front line officers feeling “directionless”.   The report, however, also touched on the use of social networks and pointed out the important role they played in providing “essential intelligence that was not, and would not, have been available through conventional methods.”

Mark Payne, however,  understood the value of social media, even well before the riots. Before being promoted to Superintendent, he was the head of the Press Office (or PIO), which appears to have made him not only an  effective communicator, but a person well aware of the power of social networks. Through his leadership, the department has fully embraced the medium as demonstrated by this helpful list of all of the platforms where they have presence.  Superintendent Payne also has his own official blog and twitter account.

Mr. Payne used his blog to describe his experience during the riots and the role social media played for his department. In that blog post–worth printing and tacking to the wall, he outlines some key points:

  • Yes, social networks helped posters organize, but instead of trying to shut down the networks police need to “show up” to these virtual organizing sessions just as they would to a physical location.
    • “When protests were being organised in student union bars, our answer was not to try and close down every bar and pub where the meetings might happen. Instead we chose to overtly approach these meetings and speak to the organisers to help us plan. Where co-operation was not forthcoming, we used covert tactics to gain a better understanding. In my view we should be taking exactly the same approach to social media.”
  • Authorities should use twitter to update community members and there ARE  consequences of not participating.
    •  “One thing that we have seen over and over again during emergency situations is that where there is no information coming from the authorities, the gap will be plugged by speculation.”
  • News media will pick up  your twitter feed as a source of verified, official information–as long as you do a good job.
    • “National TV channels were running banner headlines which were straight lifts from my tweets. I gained 5000 extra followers in the 24 hours after the riots started which gives you some idea of the amount of people who wanted to be kept up to date.”

He also has four key lessons he wants other departments to take away from his experience:

  1. Use the tools before a crisis.
  2. You will probably make mistakes: don’t let this fear stop you. We’re all human and people will not hold this against you or your department. (Left unsaid, they will hold it against you if you don’t provide timely updates.)
  3. Reach out to the existing  networks.
  4. Be engaging: answer questions and don’t just push information.

Thanks to Dan Slee (who writes a great blog on social media and local government) for reminding me about this story.

See also: “How blogger and police countered riot rumours in Wolverhamton.”

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