Controlling the rumours. Interview with Neil Tipton of West Mercia Police.

I had a chat with Neil Tipton, Web Development Officer at West Mercia Police, on 24 Aug 2011. I was particularly interested in the process behind the force’s escalation on social media and the learning from it. This is an edited version of what he told me.


West Mercia is the constabulary serving the counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire (and Telford and Wrekin), and Worcestershire.

We make extensive use of Facebook as part of our regular campaigns. We’ve been using the platform for two years. Since May 2010 we have also had a corporate Twitter account, largely publishing news releases. We make some use of YouTube and have accounts on other social networks largely to protect our username.

We had explicitly planned to use our corporate Twitter account for real time public communication in major incidents as well as day-to-day interaction. We had also explicitly planned to use social media for rumour control around major incidents.

We do not yet have officially sanctioned local social media accounts (for neighbourhood policing teams for example) but this is something we are actively exploring for future implementation.

Trigger and escalation

We had an operational plan in place for policing a march by the English Defence League and opposition groups in the Shropshire/Telford town of Wellington. As part of this plan comms staff were to be mobilised to monitor social media networks to challenge rumours and provide an authoritative voice.

We were obviously monitoring the disorder in London and other parts of the country. Even so the Monday was a normal working day. North Worcestershire is in our area and borders the West Midlands so when incidents were reported in Birmingham that seemed closer to home. That evening I was at home looking at how other forces were using social media. At 2300hrs we received the first question direct to the force twitter account asking us for information on rumours of a riot in our area.

There were not then, nor at any point during the following few days, any incidents of significant disorder across West Mercia. We had very isolated examples of criminal damage and trouble but nothing out of the normal run of policing.

I called the control room, they were receiving high volumes of calls from residents worried that riots might be spreading to our towns and cities. I began tweeting from home, controlling rumours. Social media activity died down again by 0100hrs.

On Tuesday the force started Operation Denver to reassure our communities and keep West Mercia calm. As part of that we started a nearly 24/7 shift pattern for the comms team so there was always one person on duty handling social media.

We monitored Twitter and Facebook and corrected misinformation. We sent public @ messages to individual users if they were repeating rumours and answered questions presented to us. We thought that tone was important. We tried to be friendly and authoritative. We were occasionally lighthearted: I added an #unfamiliarkeyboardfail hashtag at one point. But we were ready to modify that tone if the situation had deteriorated.

At its peak, we were dealing with questions and comments directed at us at a rate of one every 10 seconds and keeping track of whether we had replied and when was a challenge. Hootsuite was a very useful tool to help us to collaborate and check who had done what.

As the week progressed it became clearer that no incidents of disorder were happening within West Mercia and the situation began to calm. Our biggest challenge became finding new ways to say “nothing is happening, the situation is calm”.

On the Saturday we had to police a static demonstration by the English Defence League and other opposition groups in Wellington (the Home Secretary having banned marches). This involved a co-ordinated effort between comms staff for the police and also Telford & Wrekin Council . As well as managing the traditional media, a large part of our communications activites were again focused on social media, where we worked hard to provide timely updates based on fact not conjecture.

One of the challenges in fluid situations like these is that you can state a fact, correctly – such as there are no incidents, everything is calm – but five minutes later something may be happening that contradicts this. However, we tried to be clear and prompt to keep people informed of what was happening and when and always correct or update statements as the known facts emerged.

We went from 2,000 twitter followers to 4,500 in a few days. The force website received a months worth of traffic in just one week.

Learning points

It was fun to move from what might sometimes be considered a back office role to the front line and nice to have a feel of direct relevance. We had a lot of positive feedback from the public about our use of social media including someone who said that we had “Really changed my perception of the police”.

The force had always acknowledged the importance of social media but now that officers have seen it in a real environment they really understand its relevance. Social media impacts on how these events unfold. Our Chief Constable David Shaw has been very clear that social networking is now a permanent feature both of our thinking and our response to major events and incidents from now on.

The challenge for us is to sustain the momentum. We want to keep our followers and continue to explore the engagement opportunities this affords us. Encouragingly, we haven’t had lots of people turning off our Facebook updates from their newsstream or choosing to stop following us on Twitter in the days since the protests and national disorder.

Message to other category one responders

Don’t underestimate the volume of messages you will need to handle, or the staffing implications this may bring

Tone is really important.

You need to have systems to allow you to handle social media work between several members of staff, particularly for Twitter, where the standard interface is difficult to work with.

Neil tweets as @neiltipton and he has written up his recent experiences for the Guardian

You can find West Mercia Police on twitter @wmerciapolice and on Facebook at

I had a chat with Amanda Coleman, Head of Corporate Communications at Greater Manchester Police on 23 Aug 2011. I was particularly interested in the process behind the force’s escalation on social media and the learning from it. This is an edited version of what she told me.

Greater Manchester Police is the constabulary serving the conurbation around Manchester in the North west of England. It employs 8,000 police staff and 4,000 other staff. The corporate comms team stands at 36 (including a number of staff employed on dedicated roles such as working within the police museum).

We saw the value of social media in 2010,  developed a social media strategy and started using several social media channels. A big turning point came in October with the 24hr twitter marathon.

Our corporate team has been training police staff in neighbourhood teams to make use of twitter. Out of 52 neighbourhoods 45 have twitter accounts (all badged and starting with GMP). For example @GMPDidsbury (run by PCSO Ben Scott) has over 2,000 followers.

We use twitter extensively along with flickr and youtube. We had struggled to find a clear business role for facebook, prior to the recent disorder.

Our social media use was driven by a combination of wanting to improve engagement, reduce costs and make communications more interactive. We hadn’t given too much thought to integrating social media into emergency plans.







Trigger and escalation


Obviously we were aware of the disorder in London. Pockets of disorder took place on Sunday night / Monday morning in Liverpool and Birmingham. On Tuesday the force level meetings began planning for the if, where and when and the force command suite was opened.

We developed a social media plan quickly as the situation unfolded. The fact that we had a team already familiar with the tools and networks was vital in doing this successfully.

Communications staff were put on a rota to support intelligence staff with social media monitoring in an operational context. They also monitored the networks for communication related information from within the command suite.

We kept talking to people on the networks, gathering data and getting messages out promptly. We aimed to challenge inaccuracies but did not get into issues where the force had no data. We aimed to make the corporate account the focal point of trusted information. We wanted the message to be “check with GMP”.

We use a conversational and personal tone normally on our twitter account. We continued this through the disorder and afterwards.

There was a period when disorder was escalating when the situation was very confused and we were silent for a couple of hours. In retrospect we should have put out some comments. We will definitely learn from that experience.

We sent guidance to the people operating local, official, twitter accounts and encouraged them keep a sense of normality and to follow messages from the corporate feed as appropriate. Greater Manchester is a big area and most areas were untouched by the trouble. Having neighbourhood accounts behaving normally and providing reassurance was very valuable.

We put press conferences straight onto our Youtube site and began to post CCTV (and other) images of those suspected of crimes onto our flickr site within hours of the first reports of disorder. There were over 1 million views of these “most wanted” pictures within days. At the peak over 101,000 people were following our corporate twitter account.

And we found a use for facebook in sharing these images and receiving images and reports from the public.







Learning points


Senior officers in GMP have described social media (in the light of these experiences) as a “game changer for policing”. We had to deploy significant amounts of communication resources on a nearly 24/7 shift pattern for several days. We had five or six quite intense days.

Our on-call press team now check twitter as part of their response and we are always aware that journalists read our twitter feed so all our corporate communications channels have to be integrated.

We already run exercises to test how well we deal with media enquiries in major incidents. We will be looking to make sure we integrate social media into those exercises in future.

We were able to respond successfully only because we were already using social media networks and had the skills necessary to adapt to this situation.

We made mistakes on some occasions. The situation and the medium move with such speed that it was easy to trip up. We tried to catch these mistakes, put our hands up, apologise and move on.







Message to other category one responders


Do your preparation, make sure you understand the networks and plan.

Amanda tweets as @amandacomms.

I did some very quick analysis of GMP’s twitter as part of this blog post.

Working with Helpful Technology to exercise social media plans

We’re pleased to say that we’ve teamed up with Helpful Technology Ltd to provide social media simulations tailored to category one responders. Helpful Technology brings the Social Simulator platform which enables real-time modeling of online news, blogs, forum and social media traffic – such as Twitter and Facebook – within a secure environment. The Likeaword Consultancy brings expertise in digital skills for emergency planning. Between us we can deliver a compelling and convincing scenario played out in real time and with dynamic responses to players’ actions.The two companies were talking about linking up well before the recent civil disorder. They believe that it has highlighted the importance of planning and exercising the online component of emergency response.

Steph Gray (@lesteph) from Helpful Technology said

“There are specific skills needed to engage in networks like Twitter and Facebook effectively as a corporate organisation, but until now it’s been hard to train in a realistic way. The Simulator offers a secure environment that we can tailor to local situations, reflecting local media and specific local forums as necessary. Exercise control staff can interact dynamically in the platform, responding to social media updates from other participants and maintaining their own corporate presences.

We’ve run successful, highly-realistic exercises that really stretch comms teams in the public and private sectors and we think that the package has a lot to offer emergency responders.”

Helpful Technology’s platform is a great tool to really test the communication aspects of plans. It can be used to deliver an exercise focused entirely on the online aspects of an incident or to provide an online environment as part of a wider live or desk exercise. I’m thrilled that, working in partnership, we can offer a completely seamless exercise design, implementation and review service to the emergency planning community.

For more information on the system visit and for more information on the integrated offering to the emergency planning community contact us.

For a second night London has seen violent disorder in several locations. The Metropolitan Police has engaged in a significant public order policing effort.

There will be many reviews and there are already many arguments about the causes and triggers of these events. The Police tactics have been criticised. The actions of the Police surrounding the death of a Tottenham man have also been criticised and are the subject of a review by the IPCC.

I want to look at three issues which all emergency managers should be reviewing this morning.

1 How rapidly can you deploy on social media?

There is no doubt that the Met has wised-up to the existence of Social Media. There is no doubt that the scale and speed with which Saturday night’s violence erupted surprised the Police. Had they had intelligence that such disorder was likely, it seems likely that they would have been ready to use their corporate channels as part of a policing plan. But the Tottenham riot took them by surprise. They clearly had to scramble to deploy resources, to seek to get ahead of the incident and to ensure an effective chain of command. The incident was playing out across twitter from Saturday evening. The MetPolice twitter account was silent on the matter until Sunday midday. Since then it’s been a bit more active. This may have been a tactical decision. If so it was the wrong one.

Scrambling onto social media presents a series of problems for many organisations. Practically though, it is the way most bodies are going to deploy social media in emergencies. You need a structured approach. You need to be able to mobilise someone (someones) with appropriate training so that they don’t inflame matters, reveal confidential tactics or otherwise make matters worse. They need sufficient standing with the incident commander that they can provide meaningful advice and suggestions. They need to be available at short notice and have access to the requisite kit, passwords and support documentation.

It’s widely held in emergency planning circles that emergencies always occur on Saturday nights or Sunday mornings. This probably isn’t true. But you really need your plans when they do.

2. Have you trained for third party use of social media?

When I talk to emergency planners about social media (and mobile and related tech) these days they tend to focus on the organisational uses of the technology. “We could have a facebook page” they say “and use it to warn people about incidents”. That’s all very true and you certainly should do that.

There is, until I get going, less of a focus on the impact of social media on the wider community. Riots need several things: they need an underlying feeling of anger, dissatisfaction, resentment. They need a trigger. And they need a bunch of people to join in. Social media has impacts on all those aspects but its most spectacular impact is on the scale and speed at which people can be mobilised. It does look very much as though this was the effect in Tottenham. People used private and public networks to share information about the riots. The pictures of police cars on fire caused most of us to shake our heads and worry about the local community. It seems to have caused some people to think “I’ll have a bit of that”.

We need new plans to handle these new forms of communication. Only a few years ago you could control a bought of disorder if you got enough resources on the ground quickly enough to isolate the instigators then keep enough force around to stop groups from forming. That task has become much more complex because of the ability of crowds to share information over any distance, to actively coordinate or to merely share intelligence, to recruit and plan dynamically. A load of abilities that used to be reserved to the police with their radios, control centres and command structures.

And it’s not just violent disorder. Imagine the impact of social media and related tech on another fuel crisis, a Pandemic Influenza incident, foot and mouth.

Scale and speed. That’s what should become your mantra. Scale and Speed.

3. Are you training for greater openness?

This is a one-way street. The whole world has instant access to news, views and comment from any incident, certainly in the west. 24hr rolling news is the least of it.

The traditional approach of tackle the incident, try to bring things under control and then hold a press conference may not be appropriate in this new world. On the other hand it probably isn’t appropriate to give a minute-by-minute account of operational policing decisions. Somewhere in between those two is the new balance. Next year the balance will shift, and again, and again. It only moves in one direction

Incident commanders work in a goldfish bowl now. How well trained are they for the new world? And how well supported?

In summary

Social media and online tech does not fundamentally change the management of emergencies but it must radically alter the tactics used by responders.

The effects of the new technology need to permeate not just the corporate comms team but all aspects of the planning and decision making process. This is not only about warning and informing its about a fundamental change in the way citizens behave in emergencies.

Photo Credit: Firefighters – High Road Tottenham & Lansdowne Road by Alan Stanton used under CC BY-SA 2.0


Things to pay attention to: Exercise Watermark

Exercise Watermark was one of the largest civil contingency exercise every conducted in the UK. It involved all layers of emergency response in large parts of England and Wales from central government to local communities in “playing” a realistic flooding scenario. The purpose was to test the country’s plans and procedures and to identify areas for further improvement.
The Exercise ran in March 2011

The interim findings were published in June [opens a PDF click here for the source page].

The final findings will be published in September.

I want to highlight a couple of areas.

Working with traditional media.

The report had a team playing the role of media organisations and therefore was able to test how effectively responders worked with conventional media organisations.

There were a number of learning points raised in the draft report and I strongly urge everyone in communications in a Category One Responder to review pages 38 and 39 pretty soon. There were issues of “empowering” press officers and of individual responders not being active in terms of their media relations. I was particularly struck by paragraph 4.57

In LRF areas there were some problems with Police Gold Commanders exacting rigid control over the multi-agency media cell, even to the extent in one area of stopping the Environment Agency issuing such flood warning press releases, until they had passed through the local Gold clearance process, which led to more delay.

Clearly a police Gold Commander hasn’t got the power to stop the Environment Agency issuing press releases but this highlights the need to exercise multi-agency communications arrangements and to train everyone involved in the response.

There are three draft recommendations in this area:

  • Draft Recommendation 20 – Press Officer media response training should cover time management and resource issues such as mutual aid so that organisations can exercise and develop mutual aid techniques, ‘like for like press officers’.
  • Draft Recommendation 21 – Press officers should be empowered to ensure communication with the media is not delayed by awaiting sign-off from senior management.
  • Draft Recommendation 22 – Top Line Briefs from the News Co-ordination Centre should be briefer and more frequent, while the West Yorkshire LRF releases should be used as a template for future multi-agency releases on flood incidents.

This is before we move on to social media. Where the draft report has much to say (pages 39-42).

Social media.

11 out of the 26 core agencies and government departments did not engage at all with the exercise social media stream. Some agencies who did engage used social media as a broadcast tool, essentially treating it as an extension to conventional media. The report is very positive about the benefits that can flow from effective use of social media and there are these three draft recommendations as a result.

  • Draft Recommendation 23 – There should be an audit to assess social media capability, capacity and access within government departments and the emergency responder community. Actions that remove barriers to social media interaction should be considered.
  • Draft Recommendation 24 – Government departments and responders should ‘lead the conversation’ and engage with social media.
  • Draft Recommendation 25 – To improve consistency, emergency responders need to undertake a basic social media training so they understand the language, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats posed by social media. Training should also cover practical guidance on use of existing internet tools to monitor and respond to comments on Twitter etc.

It was an event of considerable scale and significance. It highlighted many areas where the public should be reassured by the plans and procedures that are in place. That should not prevent responders from overlooking the many and very sensible recommendations for future improvements.