Can we get a handle on social media early in an incident?

Last week I had 5 days of conferencing stuff. I went to Bluelightcamp and to the Emergency Planning Society Welsh Branch meeting. I’m still assimilating the learning from those.

I also spent a couple of days at the British APCO show and conference with Steph Gray from Helpful Technology. You can see what we got up to here.

British APCO is the British Association of Public Safety Communication Officials. Essentially the people who are interested in making sure that communication never fails in critical situations for the blue-light services. Consequently there were lots of shiny bits of kit and lots of resilient control centre systems. They also organised a panel session on social media and major incidents with a great cast-list. I live-blogged from that session and I’ve been reflecting on many of the things that were shared there.

One of the areas of risk within social media in emergencies, in the UK experience at least, is the different expectations, resources and capacity of different responders. I asked a question about that. Mark Payne who is a Superintendent from West Midlands Police said he felt that Gold and Silver Commanders needed to get a handle on this early on in an incident.

What could this mean. In practical terms?

Well in the Police Service a Silver Commander is the officer with tactical responsibility and Gold the officer with overall and strategic responsibility.

As a first step these people should have on their list of things to check

“who’s keeping online communities informed?” and, presumably,

“who is giving me sensible intelligence derived from online communities”

And of course those people will need to have some data about the incident so they can share it with online communities. The traditional model of decide, implement and hold a press conference is pretty dead now (or should be). The new model of decide, implement and share some of your tactical thinking live with the world is going to take some getting used to.

And there is further mud to cloud the waters.

In civil emergencies the Gold and Silver Commanders are the people who chair (respectively) the strategic and tactical multi-agency groups. At the start of an incident these people are very commonly police officers (though in principle they could work for any service). Once the incident moves into recovery they usually switch to a local authority manager.

Let’s imagine their checklists again:

“who’s keeping online communities informed?” and

“who’s giving me sensible intelligence derived from online communities”

No longer just which member of staff but which member of staff in which agency. And where do they get their data and where do they send their intelligence?

We do have the concept of lead responder. Essentially the principle is that the agency with most work to do will lead on comms. That’s pretty sound: in a river flood event the Environment Agency probably has access to most of the critical data. Lead responders still need to get information out of their partners. The fire and rescue service knows where its pumps are, the local authority knows where the evacuation (rest) centres are.

When we overlay the process for monitoring social media platforms for relevant data it becomes more complex. Many police forces seem to have improved their capacity for intelligence gathering on social media but they often use approaches that are slow to deploy. Even if they deploy effectively how much data will they share with partners and who will be looking for the other relevant data. The police know a lot about crime but a lot less about the safety of contaminated water or what reports of flooding in particular locations tell us about the progress of an incident.

This means much more effective integrated comms than many agencies have been geared up for.

One year ago Exercise Watermark found

“In some LRF areas, members of the police force in a strategic coordinating group, rigidly controlled the media messages. In one area, further delays were caused by key flood warning press releases having to go through the strategic coordinating group clearance process.”

Press officers were also concerned about the location of the multi-agency communications cell, a group of press officers from the concerned response organisations. Access to strategic coordinating group members was essential but Tactical coordination group members would guarantee quicker access to the hard facts and figures. Physical location was also important; the press officer in charge of the Suffolk communications cell said that he had excellent access to strategic coordinating group members, and the Chief Constable was available for media interviews.”

(Page 27 3.113 & 3.114 Exercise Watermark Final Report)

How many areas have reviewed their procedures for managing press releases and journalists in the light of this finding?

We need to get much better at all of this stuff.

The Riots Communities and Victims Panel found (amongst many other useful and challenging things) that

“The riots highlighted how far behind many public services are around the use of widely used modern methods of communication, such as social media.”

(Page 12, After the riots The final report of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel)

So Mark Payne is right.

Are we ready?




I grabbed a couple of minutes with Mark Payne on video just before the event.