I’m “over West”, in one of my favourite parts of the world, for the Emergency Media and Public Affairs Conference. I was fortunate to have a day here before the conference, and be able to catch up with the team here in Perth, who have been dealing with the complexity of the tragic incident in Margaret River, as well as an out of season bushfire down in the south west. Tough times, but they have been doing a fantastic job supporting a small community trying to comes to terms with an out of the ordinary experience.
EMPA is the national emergency communications conference, run by a group of dedicated and experienced communications professionals. It’s tightly run, and really well targeted, and able to bring in array of fascinating speakers from the strategic to the tactical. Sometimes they also let people like me in to speak. A few people said “wow, you are presenting at EMPA, I’ve heard its a great conference.
Chris Webb is the former head of media at Scotland Yard. Having been in the business for 35 years, he had a range of diverse experiences in emergencies and crises and sometimes when both cross over. He exudes an amazing calm- the sort of calm you want in someone leading crisis comms in one of the most complex cities in the world. It was 40 minutes of fascinating insights into not only the changing nature of emergency communications, but also how to deal with complex incidents.
One thing that really struck me was how Chris described how the newscycle has become compressed in his time. In 1987, when he dealt with the King Cross Station fire, he said you had about 6 hours to prepare materials for news bulletins and the newspaper cycle. That was pretty comfortable By the mid nineties, with the advent of 24 hour news channels, this had shortened to about an 1hour. Still doable. Since 2010 and the explosion of social media, the news cycle has become about 30seconds. Media outlets no longer report the news, they generate content off what is happening. Curate it. What it means that as agencies and media outlets, we are no longer telling the story. The public are shaping the narrative. He spoke about there being 3Ms in a story cycle, Mayhem, Mastermind, Manhunt. This being, first, trying to find out what has happened, second, trying to explain how it has happened, and then finally, trying to find out who is responsible. He thought, if you were able to do the first two well, then it makes the third easier to manage (still not fun). You don’t want to find yourself in a manhunt very early on. Interestingly, he also said that research into social media use during emergencies, also follows a similar pattern. People are looking for the same things.
Strategic planning is so important. And while he was the head of communications for the police, he wasn’t the one making operational decisions. With the London bombings on the 7th July, he did the strategic planning. What to do in 30 mins, 3 hrs, six, hours. Pulling people off line to comeback later, sending the commissioner to the television studios, making sure the spokesperson is not an operational person, but part of the operational briefings. Making sure the messages talk to people. Making sure there was a family liaison officer with media skills available to enable families to craft the messages they wanted to give to the public. As an aside, I recall being at Mt Macedon for a catastrophic disasters workshop, and the news of the bombings came through. We had BBC news on the television, and I can still recall strongly how powerful the commissioner was. He was being interviewed and talking to the interviewer about what they knew, and that they were doing, and then he turned to the camera, and said, ‘And this is what we want to you to do” It was so simple, powerful and effective.
The cross over when the emergency became the crisis. The signs of crisis are fourfold. Growing uncertainty (things are getting worse, not better), loss of control (attempts to deal with the situation is becoming less and less effective), growing isolation. Support from stakeholders is ebbing away, friends are vanishing and then Attack, where the organisation is under attack from a number of sources.
The example he spoke about, unsurprisingly, was the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The local council stumbled along in its response, and the local community filled the void. They didn’t ask for help at all. There was an absence of leadership (he pointed out the irony of the Prime Minister being surrounded by police going to meet the firefighters, and the Queen, with one protective services officer, meeting the local residents), the council found themselves with all four of those issues pretty quickly. They didn’t identify their target audience ( which was local residents who might be affected) so they just tweeted information. A lot of people did not have access to social media in the hours and days after, so it was ineffective. They failed to read the mood of the public, which quickly turned to anger. And then they hid behind legal advice on shaping what could be said, as it might be used in a subsequent inquiry. The CEO of the council eventually resigned.
A tour de force of a presentation. No other way of describing it
What better than a western Australian band telling their story of the london bombings