Public Services > Blue Light

Police, riots, Facebook and Twitter

Neil Tipton Published 24 August 2011

Police, riots, Facebook and Twitter

Neil Tipton, web development officer at West Mercia Police, describes how it used social media to reassure the public during the riots

How do you convince a community of 1.1 million people that the rioting and looting they are seeing play out live on their television screens is not actually happening on their own doorstep? Particularly when social networks like Twitter and Facebook are rife with rumours of incidents seemingly on every other street corner.

That was the scenario which unfolded for the corporate communications team at West Mercia Police earlier this month, in common with many other police forces up and down the country.

Our challenges in dealing with this were many: it was unclear how long the situation would last, we had a small team responsible for both social and traditional media and our resilience was further reduced by summer leave. Add in that the key times for potential disorder were after the hours of darkness and it was clear that a round-the-clock effort was required.

Further complicating matters was a planned protest by the English Defence League and opposition groups in Telford at the weekend, which was already leading to heightened community tensions and sparking a great deal of its own rumour and speculation.

A few things were in our favour, however. We already had advanced plans in place to manage our social media channels during the Telford protests, so we could effectively bring these forward. Our established presence on Facebook and Twitter meant we could use these channels to our advantage from the outset. We're also a pretty flexible bunch, so there were no complaints when we had to impose a shift pattern to ensure we could continue tweeting late into the night. A 2.00 am finish was our late night record, and coffee was our friend all week.

Our objectives were threefold. Firstly, we were there to provide reassurance to the public by providing up-to-date information on the unfolding situation and the actions West Mercia Police were taking. Secondly, we were there to answer the many hundreds of questions that were coming in from the public, thus reducing the pressure on our force control room. Thirdly, we worked closely with our intelligence department to ensure we knew of any incidents that were unfolding, as well as pass on the information that the public was giving us.

Did it work? By numbers alone, the operation was a success. On Twitter, we went from just over 2,000 followers to 4,210 in the course of just 24 hours. By the end of the week we had over 5,400 followers. Our Facebook page was just as popular. We began with just over 1,800 'likes' by the end of last week this had swelled to 4,300 plus and had received 479 comments in six days. In addition, our force website saw as many hits in one week as it usually does in a month.

In return we had many messages of support and the occasional brickbat, but we hope overall that we were able to provide a useful 'rumour control' service in a straightforward way with, at times, a touch of humour to lighten the mood.

There's no doubt it was a hugely challenging and tiring week. But despite this, it was a rewarding one; while public relations might often be considered to be 'back office', this was one occasion when the whole force and crucially the public could appreciate the value of good communication.

Where do we go from here? We already knew that social media was a key part of modern life for increasing numbers of people. The past week only serves to reinforce that. What's clear now is that it is also a key part of modern policing. Our challenge is to maintain the head of steam we've built up and continue to develop our social media channels in the ways that the public finds most beneficial.

We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.