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.