Last night I received insight into the running of one of the largest communications challenges ever faced in the UK. I was wowed by the panel at the CIPR’s ‘The Communications Lessons of 7/7’ event, which included the Deputy Mayor of London, Richard Barnes, and the Associate Editor of Sky News, Simon Buck, among others.
Discussion surrounded the difficulties in fulfilling the appetites of 24-hour news crews. Dick Fedorcio, Director of Public Affairs at Met Police described the criticism that the Force fell under for taking 35 minutes to issue a first official statement. The news crews were desperate for spokespeople: Sky News immediately called on Bob Crowe, Head of the RMT Transport Union for his thoughts.
When you look at this figure in isolation, 35 minutes may seem like a long time to acknowledge a major incident like the 7/7 bombings, however last night’s talk was about understanding why the comms teams followed the protocol and acted as they did. When an organisation is held accountable for the management of a major incident, as the Met Police were, statements must first and foremost be factually correct. Confusion reigned within the first 15 minutes of the terrorist attack, with media reporting that there had been a power surge. The official statements were to be used as confirmation of the facts. As Paul Mylrea, Head of PR at TFL (in 2005), explained, ‘There will always be criticism about a lack of information, but officials might not have it.’ Any organisation has a duty of care to its stakeholders, and on 7/7 the Metropolitan Police acted to provide careful clarification of facts.
Interestingly, the impact of user generated content (UGC) and citizen journalism on the communications and reporting of 7/7 was relatively low. Some photographs of the dead and injured surfaced, but not until over an hour after the incidents occurred. So many more people now have smartphones with quick access to a camera and sites like Twitter, that I’m convinced the reporting would be very different today. Do eye-witness accounts blur or help to clarify the true picture? This is up for debate, but what is certain is that the pressure on organisations to respond quickly to a crisis is greater now than ever.