LONG READ: What we can all learn from the #GrabBag hashtag blow back

In late 2019, we live in interesting times.

So far this year we’ve had flooding, extreme heat and dams that almost collapse.

In the rest of the year we have the prospect of snow, ice and the impact of a possible ‘no deal’ Brexit with government modelling of food shortages, medicine shortage

Trust is low with around a third of us trusting government officials and journalists with politicians generally trusted by a fifth of the population.

So, how do you get across the need to prepare for possible future emergency?

With great difficulty it seems.

A tweet from Police Scotland appeared to set off a mix of alarm and mirth with the  #GrabBag hashtag trending and BBC News picking up the baton online and in broadcast.

A number of police and councils have also used the hashtag along with #30days30ways to ask people to get ready in peacetime ahead of any emergencies ahead.

The aim is positive but in an atmosphere of mistrust, it can very easily go off target.

With some possible alarming days ahead its worth taking a pause to reflect on how we can pull this stuff off. It’s long been a frustration of mine that emergency planning is always 9th on the ‘to do’ list, never rises above that and gets ignored until its too late.

The #GrabBag content

Here’s a quick look at the content in and around the #GrabBag hashtag.

And also…


But any good analysis should look at the data, too.


The #Grabbag numbers

Using Ritetag analysis, the hashtag had reached large numbers with almost 4,000 tweets.


The hashtag had also spiked impressively in the analysis.


However, the big problem with hashtag analysis is drilling down into sentiment. The US-based algorithm is incapable as yet of spotting sarcasm leading to a manual analysis of what people were really saying.

It’s safe to say the hashtag didn’t really perform as intended.

Sarcasm, worry and brand jacking emerged, the analysis suggests, and the original purpose of the hashtag was obscured.

The #Grabbag key words

The most frequently used positive terms were fine…


The most frequently used negative ones less so…


But what were the trends to a UK audience? I went through and counted a cross-section of around 150 to give a snapshot of the underlying sentiment.

The #Grabbag sentiment

Counting through the content, the sentiment was overwhelmingly parody with supportive tweets being outscored four to one.

The original tweets with the original purpose had been swamped by people who were either pouring scorn or were entertained by the idea of a #grabbag full of gin. Hey! Big LOLs! There’s an argument that any publicity is good publicity. I’m not convinced by that argument.

But there was also a more worrying undertow, too. Did the Police know something they didn’t? Shouldn’t people be more responsible? Who was responsible for all this? This is 2019, we’re talking about. There was even a flavour of newsjacking with big brands trying to cash-in.



So, armed with all this, what does it tell you?

Well, first up, I’m not going to suggest anything stupid like stopping tweeting. Police and local government people who tweet have my undying admiration. I used to be one. Whoever launched the hashtag should be applauded for trying to tackle a serious issue. But the episode does provide some teachable moments that we can learn from.

The public sector should still tackle the big issues

The temptation after adverse publicity is to go into a bunker and maybe delete your account. ‘No,’ and ‘no’ to that. There is a need to communicate in the places where people are. Besides, its a legal obligation for the public sector to warn and inform.

When things go awry I think Cadbury’s and Easter

Every year the meme re-surfaces that Cadbury’s have banned the word ‘Easter’ from their Easter eggs. It spreads across the internet like wildfire. It’s political correctness gone mad. Angry people bombard Cadbury’s with messages to say how outraged they are.

The only thing is that Cadbury’s haven’t banned Easter at all.

The chocolate manufacturer when this first happened where faced with a choice. Either ignore it or talk back. They chose talk back. Like a giant version of whack-a-mole their team mans the ramparts to try and tweet back to people who complain online.

Active rebuttal in the manner of Cadbury’s when things have gone a bit awry is something to deploy. If the message out there is that the police want you to pack your bags because… something BAD is about to happen that feels like something to address.

Equally, it wouldn’t go amiss to respond to some of the parody tweets with a degree of wit and humour.

Yes, this means more resources.

Yes, it helps to direct people towards your message.

Get by with a little help from your friends

The public sector is great but often vital campaigns are launched in a corner of the internet. With #GrabBag, I didn’t see the combined might of the public sector combining. It would have been good to see partners, friends and the rest of the organisation come to the fore to amplify any explainer tweets.

Tapping into your internal comms and companies

If we don’t trust government officials, who do we trust?

Well, it turns out we trust our employers far more. Perhaps surprisingly, even those who think the system is failing them put their trust in their employers. The Edelman Trust Barometer puts 69 per cent of those with a cynical outlook as still trusting their employer.

That’s a massively powerful figure and one that invites a real re-calibration your message. Have a loudhailer. But add companies’ internal comms channels to your loudhailer. It’s also enlisting your own internal comms too for public sector organisations are not just big employers but they’re big local employers.

Thanks for reading. You can find me @danslee on Twitter and dan@danslee.co.uk by email.

LONG READ: I read 147 Facebook updates across seven pages to see how the Whaley Bridge dam crisis was communicated on Facebook


Earlier this year a dam burst near the Brazilian town of Belo Horizonte and within minutes 40 were dead and 300 missing buried under thick brown sludge.

In the UK, its been almost 100 years since loss of life from a dam burst from any of our  almost 3,000 dams.

In August 2019, it nearly happened.

Heavy rain at the Toddbrook Reservoir saw the dam overspill and the 170-year-old dam wall start to disintegrate.  There were fears it would lead to the wall collapsing and a million gallons of water flooding down onto the Derbyshire town of Whaley Bridge below.

An emergency operation kicked in with 1,000 people evacuated from the 6,500 population.

The plot was quite simple. Firstly, ump water out of the dam to ease the pressure on the damaged wall. Secondly, repair the damaged wall. So, fire crews crews pumped water out of the reservoir and the RAF brought in a Chinook helicopter to bring in bags of material to help shore-up the crumbling wall.

But how did people stay in touch?

And how did organisations reach people to get a message out in the seven days when the town held its breath?

How was there not mass panic?

The answer was a range of bush telegraph, word-of-mouth, phone, radio, TV and social media.

After seven tense days the dam wall was repaired and the water was pumped out, the was no collapse and the evacuated were allowed home.

Now the dust has settled I took a look at the role Facebook played in the operation to see what lessons I could learn. Turns out there’s a stack.

It was an incident played out on Facebook both corporate pages but also on station accounts and the community-run Whaley Bridge community page whose admin was a vital part of the local news network.

Traditional news sites covered the incident but I focused on fire, police, council, ambulance and the community Facebook page.

Yes, people in an emergency want to be kept updated through the corporate Facebook page

Mapping the main four corporate Facebook pages, Derbyshire Police, Derbyshire Fire and Rescue, Derbyshire County Council and East Midlands Ambulance service there were 147 individual updates which were shared 21,000 times with more than 9,000 comments and shared more than 19,000 times.

Often times, as a trainer of communicators I’m looking at ways to turn heads and get people interested. In this incident, there was no need. There was a captive audience of 6,500 Whaley Bridge people. The challenge was to get information out.

Of the four corporate pages, the most commented, shared and reacted to was the Derbyshire Police corporate page. This was no surprise as they were leading on the evacuation. Throughout the seven days they kept a running commentary with regular updates on the position of the repair and pumping as well as the evacuation plan and reassurance that those evacuated homes were being monitored. Other agencies concentrated on what they were doing and there was a level of sharing the police general updates.

whaley corp

The Derbyshire Police page was an information lifeline

From a distance, there was a number of things that worked.

Time stamping each update worked to build-in obsolescence. So, an update at 3pm was marked as 3pm on the image. In a fast-developing scenario this felt like a useful tactic to do.

Writing in plain English for Facebook. Each update was clear and concise. Each gave  the impression the content had been specially shaped for Facebook. Each had a calm and informative tone of voice. This was not a press release cut and pasted but something for Facebook itself.

Updates had new first-hand content. People wanted to know what the issue was and what success looked like. Knowing that reducing the water levels was all-important images of the water level being reduced were important.

dam snuggles

Replying to comments. With more than 7,000 comments over the seven day operation the comms team had their hands full. But commenting helped warn, inform and reassure the public. They were also able to respond warmly to messages of thanks.

Openness made a bank of goodwill. The operation didn’t go smoothly. There was an evacuation of 1,000 people and then the halt to the operation which let some people home to gather pets and medicines. That could have gone badly. What played out on Facebook was praise for the emergency services that helped them.

Updates were in real-time and regular. There was an appetite to update Facebook regularly. The impression given was that Facebook was a prime channel rather than an unmonitored after-thought. When there was an update it was posted. But the gaps were not too long.



But some of the best content came from devolved station pages

Sharing the sweets is something I’ve long argued for. By all means have a corporate page giving the official line but if you give the people on the ground the trust and training you’ll be surprised at what you find.

Here, there were two station Facebook pages, the Melbourne On-Call Fire Station page and the Staveley Fire Station page. More than 30 updates were shared from the scene and shared more than 500 times across the community.

This incident confirms the important role a responsible community-run Facebook presence can have as a force for good. It’s a reminder that one of the main places people get local news is local Facebook.

Eye-witness content underpinned the corporate message. Both stations created good eyewitness content at a time when the immediate peril had passed. Images of pumping operations and reduced water levels showed the message in action.

Eye-witness content from the frontline created content for the corporate page. In any incident that spans days people get tired and the thin red line can get tired and thinner. What you’d like to do isn’t always what you can do. So, to have fire crew creating content means you’re able to pull it and post it through the corporate page.

whaley station

It showed the human face. The tired firefighters that have worked through the night gave an opportunity for the community to thank them for their efforts. What was striking was the messages of thanks and support. That must have had a value to firefighters tired after a long shift.


The Whaley Bridge community page was at the heart of it

The town has 6,500 residents and 5,600 members of the Whaley Bridge page.  So well connected was the page admin was that he was in the room when the decision was taken to evacuate.

Happily, the page admin hung back to first allow the authorities to make the announcement that 1,000 people would have to move out as the dam was at risk of breaking.

The Whaley Bridge page was at the heart of the community network posting 74 times across seven days with 12,622 reactions and 2,180 comments and 2,647 shares. Rather than being a simple sign-posting operation to forward on the official police post the admin worked to reflect the work on the ground. The tenor of the posts was supportive.

It’s possible the task could have been harder if the page admin had had an axe to grind.

This is a reminder that the Facebook admin in the community is just as important as the local reporter. In many ways, they are more important.

It was surprising, given the role that Facebook groups play that there was not an effective Facebook group for the town. But with the page being an effective and well placed source there was no need.

whaley community

On-the-spot content. The Whaley Bridge page was busily creating its own content from the town and in many cases from close to the dam itself.

Evidence worked. When people wanted to see evidence of progress the pictures that confirmed this did well. While the Chinook shots got lots of attention it was the shots of the water levels being reduced that really engaged with the community.

Re-sharing some corporate content but not all. There was plenty being put out by fire, police, council and ambulance. But only a selection of it was shared.

People responded really well to the people helping them. A blurred shot of a worker making a cup of tea in the requisitioned sailing club house was the most popular piece of content. An expression of gratitude to those who were helping them it is as British as a cup of tea.


They were flooded by journalists. Looking to speak to local people the Facebook page admin was inundated with private messages from reporters. So much so he was telling them to stop messaging. In a crisis, news desk used to despatch a reporter who would be directed to the local shop or pub to gauge community feeling. Now, they also head to the largest community Facebook presence.

Video helped to reassure and scotch rumours

The story boiled down to something straight forward. Namely, that the dam wall will break unless the water level is dropped to relieve pressure and the wall is repaired. So, footage of the water level dropping through pumping and emergency repairs was gold.

The best footage was from the scene. Rather than have a talking head at HQ telling people something was happening they had action shots. This was a brilliant decision and spoke far eloquently than a senior person. ‘Don’t tell us, show us,’ was a well followed mantra in the crisis phase. Drone footage showed this well.

Facebook Live from the residents Q&A. More than 40,000 people watched the session where residents could ask questions. This was a cracking idea and was responded to.

Putting up the senior people. The council had some early sub-titled video of the council Leader while the police and fire service at the end of things wrapped-up with the most senior people they had. As a strategy this was secondary.

In summary

Facebook as the largest social channel is integral to the messaging in an emergency.

Regular and timely updates to fill the vacuum are needed.

Comments need to be responded to.

The idea of don’t just say it, show it works well.

Devolved Facebook presences can come into their own for creating content that can be re-shared by the corporate page.

What came through the more than 170 Facebook posts from the incident was a feeling of community spirit and a collective holding of breath until the danger passed.

Those involved should feel a real sense of pride.

I help deliver Facebook training for people in the public sector. More here. If you’d like help give me a shout dan@danslee.co.uk.

WINTER COMMS part 3: Eight ways to communicate with images in the snow and ice

Hey, remember when listening to the local radio station at 7.40am was how you found out about school closures? Good times. 

Today, things are much more complex. The public sector has the tools to talk to people directly. Information and also counter-argument. It is not enough to tell people with words. In the days of fake news you have to use video or images. I’ve blogged examples of video here.

But how about images?

Well, if a picture can paint a thousand words then use more of them.

An image from the frontline of a rescue

Macclesfield Police were involved in a rescue of a couple who took their baby for a ride and then got stuck in sub-zero temperature. The shot taken on a smartphone shows just what they are up against.

An image from the frontline of road conditions and a closure

A shot posted quickly by a frontline officer to the web can be shared swiftly.

 An image of stills from the traffic cameras

While the best content is outside the office there is a way to stay in the office and get something usable. Images of road conditions taken from traffic cameras acts as a warning. And you get to stay in the warm.

An image of text

For all engaging image can attract attention 80 per cent of people in an emergency just want text. This screenshot does just that and drives traffic.

 An image of conditions to drive traffic to the link

Snow and ice on the ground show the conditions people are up against.

An image of conditions as a warning not to travel

This shot of the North Yorkshire moors to anyone with common sense shows a picture of an impassable road. It works well on Facebook.


A collection of images for reassurance

Shots of ambulance crews facing the odds reminds people that the service is still there and working hard.

 A sharable infographic

The irony of this NHS image is that it is shared on a council website. Which is the intention of making something sharable.


LIVE TALES: Live streaming and Hurricane Irma

There’s always moments when a new digital platform comes into its own. 

In 2011, it was Twitter that really came into the mainstream during the London riots. It was where middle managers in the organisation and the public could find out what was happening.

Twitter and Hurricane Irma

In 2017, Twitter is the bread and butter of emergency communications. The US Government department FEMA have been using it and have been using this and the web to shoot down rumour.

In 2017, live video and Hurricane Irma seems to have made a similar transition.

Both platforms allow you to use your phone as an outside broadcast unit and stream to the internet.

Both platforms end up feeding in the media by providing eye-witness reporting from the scene. In an environment where fake news has undermined trust in text, video is hugely important for communications people.

Case study #1: Behind the scenes news room tour

A journalist takes a tour of the TV news room that is keeping people informed of what is taking place.

Case study #2: The calm before the storm

Residents took to walking around deserted streets to show what was happening.

Case study #3: The eye witness

Views from the balcony showing the hurricane as it is striking.

Case study #4: The professional storm chaser

In the US, storm season is met with enthusiasts chasing down tornados and extreme weather. People like Jeff Piotrowski have been using Periscope to connect with people and give a realtime sense of the storm.




LONG READ: 14 comms lessons from the Manchester bomb attack

There’s a school of thought that public sector comms people are a bunch of non-jobs who are a waste of money.
Their budget would be better spent on replacing windows or filling potholes, the argument goes.

Those who make that argument? They know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Empty tins sound the loudest. Where were they when a terror attack struck Manchester? They were nowhere. Wheras the Public Sector in Manchester just as the people did responded.

As Google Trends shows, the spike of searches for Manchester and Ariana Grande whose concert was attacked is marked.

google trends

Where were the Public Sector communications people?

Late at night and for days after they were communicating with the stunned Greater Manchester public of 2.8 million, 65 million UK citizens and billions around the globe.
Thoughts should absolutely be with those who were killed and affected by the explosion. Thoughts too with the police, ambulance, fire and local government people who responded first.
But as a communicator who has worked eight years in local government I’m absolutely sparing a thought to the comms people too. There are some people in the industry who would have folded faced with this challenge. That’s understandable. A terror attack is a massive event. The response from Greater Manchester Police, Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue, Transport for Manchester, the Combined Authority, both Mayor’s teams, all parts of the NHS, Manchester City Council and others was sterling. No channel seemed to go AWOL. No-one seemed to have left a scheduled tweet in place.
Professional. Informative and well judged. Not just in the aftermath but in the coming together and moments of reflection.

This is what gold standard communications looks like.

Clear, timely precise information under intense pressure for a sustained period.

Class, be like them.

When people talk about ‘non-jobs’ ask them how they’d communicate a terror attack and its aftermath. You’ll get a non-answer.

Mental resilience

However, I was reminded by Stephen Waddington’s post about mental resilience in communications. It’s a timely post that asks people to look after their mental health. In the aftermath of huge stress, I’d hope that the organisations and individuals involved bear this in mind. They’re bright people. I’m sure they will.

Here are some standout lessons


The Public Sector is not a single thing but a number of organisations that serve a community. In the aftermath of the attack, organisations shared vital updates. Fire shared police updates, for example. The Mayor’s office shared a newspaper’s frontpage, for example. The strength of the Public Sector is the long reach and broad digital footprint. In an emergency share it.
There’s no question that the public far wider than Manchester identified with the content and amplified it.

Communications to say ‘you can get updates over here.’

One lessons of communicating in an emergency is for the Public Sector to signpost people to where the up-to-date information is. This happened effectively in the Westminster attack and did so again in Manchester. Here, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue acknowledged the incident and pointed people to Greater Manchester Police.

Communications to say ‘we’re on it’ part I

The Ambulance Trust dealing with the attack communicated via Twitter to say they were aware and ask people not to call on other matters unless it was an emergency.

Communications to say ‘we’re on it’ part II

Police acknowledged the incident as it was breaking. This is text book stuff. By doing this they flag-up they are aware and where to follow for updates. The days of waiting to sign-off a press release at a time of emergency is long over.

Communication as a sharable image with need-to-know information

There’s every chance this image wasn’t made by the Public Sector itself. But the lesson this does show is that the key public information in the hours after the event WILL be shared as an image.

Communications as part of the investigation

Content taken at the time and in the aftermath helps police piece together what happened. This tweet encourages people to send their footage in.

A video response and information update

As the aftermath became recovery, the issue turned to transport and what would be running. Video was used here.

Communications as mental health support for an entire city

If more than 20,000 people were at the Manchester Arena many more would have faced an anxious wait to see if their children, family or friends were okay. Updates to say ‘it’s not okay’ were widely shared.

Communications to say ‘we’re bouncing back.’

A week after the attack, sporting events took place across the city. As this video from Mayor Andy Burnham shot and posted within minutes shows, it’s a city refusing to give in.

Communication as poetry

Tony Walsh was invited to read one his poems not just in the event after the attack but at the Great Manchester Run.

Communication as an image to convey breaking news

Greater Manchester Police staged a series of raids and arrests across Manchester in the days after the event. A simple update and sharable image kept people informed.

Communications as infographic

Greater Manchester used an infographic to explain the scope and depth of the investigation.

Communication to say ‘we’re human too.’

If it’s okay to be not okay, it’s also okay to show your staff as being human. A Facebook timeline image shows the Greater Manchester Chief Constable embracing a member of the public. It’s genuine, warm and isn’t staged.


Communications as a captured Instagram street picture

An image on the street spotted and photographed by Greater Manchester Police and shared to their Instagram feed.

Sharing other people’s content

Manchester City Council shared this fund raising link. It doesn’t have to be your own content. It doesn’t even have to be Public Sector.


Making a city proud

VIDEO LINK: A quick routine case study on why frontline fire content works

Why give frontline teams access to social media? Easy. Because they create the best content.

It’s long been a drum I’ve been banging and I find it odd that this hasn’t mushroomed faster.

What was the content?

Take Highgate Fire Station in the West Midlands, for example. They responded to an abandoned burning car on November 4 and posted a short video clip the next day. Just 21 seconds and features a firefighter in breathing aparatus extinguishing the blaze. They posted it to their station Twitter account. You can see the video here:


In terms of resource, it took one firefighter less than five minutes to shoot, edit and post the content. It’s the kind of thing that back when I was a journalist the fire crew would barely mention. Why? Because they are routine to them. To the residents they serve they aren’t.

So who saw that video?

Tweetreach say that 39,000 accounts were reached by the tweet which was shared 13 times. Included in that number was the Birmingham Mail who ripped the video and created their own video which they posted on their own channels.


What equipment was needed?

A smartphone that can record video and some WiFi. That’s it.

What did it say?

On a basic level, it said that firefighters risk their lives to make the area they serve safer.  It also works to promote the work of the fire service and better connect with residents.

So, why wouldn’t fire and rescue services want more of this? In fact, why wouldn’t the rest of the public sector want to tell people about the job they are doing? And yet, so many oprganisations are still reluctant to invest and trust their staff.

BLAZE MESSAGE: 14 lessons fire comms can teach everyone

sapA thousand flowers are blooming in this new era of digital communications.

Amazing things are happening, new rulebooks are being written and old ones tossed away.

But if you are too busy growing roses you won’t spot the great things happening.

Or in other words, look outside your own corner of the world and you’ll find great things.

And so it is with fire and rescue services not just across the UK but across the world. I’ve done some work in the sector and got to know some people and I’ve always left with knew ideas on how to do things.

Often, people in the sector don’t realise just how great their work is. Less in number than local and central government comms people from the sector communicate to save lives and to prevent them. I’d love them to be bolder. They don’t just get you to test your smoke alarm. They save lives.

One myth exploded, though. In the UK the comms is not geared up primarily for documenting heroic rescue. Prevention is better than cure. Statistics say there were 258 fatalities in the 12-months to March 2015 and 3,225 were taken to hospital. There were almost 155,000 fires. This is the second lowest in UK history.

Fire comms people need to move from the pedestrian pace of advice to business to communicating death and sometimes the death of their own colleagues. That takes guts. Not everyone can do this.

There is a community of fire communicators

The FirePRO organisation is the umbrella group for the sector and a bright bunch they are too. But Twitter also connects them not just across the UK but far further. The fact I asked a question about best practice on a Friday night and got a pile of responses is perfect evidence. Neil Spencer from West Midlands fire describes this as a ‘can do, will do, let’s give it a try attitude.’

Here are 14 things you can learn from fire comms

#1 Using planning to get your shizzle ready

Nobody wants an emergency. But they tend to happen and when they do public sector comms people have to react. I’ve lost count of the number of blank faces in local government when I ask what they’d do if a plane crashed, a bomb went off or a tower block started to fall down. Not so fire and rescue.

As award-winning Bridget Aherne wrote in a blog post for comms2point0:

“The way to sum this up quickly – and sorry to anyone who knows me because you’ll have heard me utter this phrase, annoyingly, hundreds of times before – you have to be proactive about your reactive communications.”

Lesson: Good comms planning always helps.

#2 Using Periscope for realtime situation reports

Lesson: If an incident is breaking live video from the scene to give situation reports has real value and can plug into online networks as well as media organisations.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 18-months co-delivering workshops on making effective video for comms. It teaches people to plan, edit, shoot and post video. However, in an emergency the value is not the well-shot video. The value is have video footage from that particular spot at that particular time. Why? So you can communicate with people in realtime. In the UK, there is a duty on comms people in local government, fire, police and other agencies to warn and inform.
As this US example shows, a firefighter giving a commentary or even a brief situation report – has value. Don’t forget anyone with a smartphone and the Periscope app has the ability to fill that information vacuum. Questions can also be posed by people following the stream and answered by fire crew.

In an era where video is highly sought by media organisations online to be in the frontline is priceless.

#3 Using a hashtag

Lesson: A simple sharable hashtag can help spread a campaign.

One of the greatest uses of a hashtag by anyone in the public sector is the excellent #testittuesday tag. Started by Norfolk Fire and rescue it is that brilliant thing of basic advice shared as a hashtag. It encourages people every Tuesday to test their smoke alarm. As basic good advice it can be hard to measure the effectiveness or the fires that didn’t happen because of a test.

#4 Using Instagram as a channel

Lesson: Instagram can be used for soft power. Images of the work people to do interspersed with more serious messages.

Services across the world are starting to make headway with Instagram. Really, there’s no surprise. It’s not like there’s nothing to photograph. If there isn’t a fire there’s the equipment or the staff in the equipment. Kent Fire and Rescue Service excell in this area. A stream that is engaging, fun and personable people could do worse than looking at this.

Keep smiling after after a good night out. Being drunk and cooking don’t mix. #smilesafe #fire #firefighter

A photo posted by Fire and Rescue (@kentfirerescue) on Jul 12, 2016 at 5:41am PDT


#5 Using mapping

Lesson: Maps can communicate with the media and residents and reduce avoidable contact.

Back when I was a journalist we made a round of calls to fire stations on our patch at 7.30am, 1pm and 10pm. There were six in our patch and a further 14 in surrounding areas which we sort of covered. That’s 60 calls a call.

Essex County Fire and Rescue Service have a mapping page embedded in their website which gives news of incidents with some basic details. They also post images and videos which can be used with a credit. This must cut the amount of time on routine calls. Hats off to Sarah Roberts for this.


#6 Using the social web as a firefighter and human being

Lesson: People respond to people so let your people.

One thing I’ve long argued for is for public sector people to use social media as themselves. There’s far greater cut-through. People connect better to real people than a logo. So, it’s always inspiring to see real people doing just that. Thanks to @rubonist on Twitter for flagging this.

#7 Using the social web as a senior officer

Lesson: Using the social web allows senior people to be visible and to listen better. It also allows partners and the organisation to better understand their thinking and priorities. 

There has been a trend in recent years of senior public sector people using Twitter to engage, listen, share ideas and give some visibility to yourself.

#8 Using embedded social media video

Lesson: Embedding video to drop into people’s timelines can be a good way to communicate.

Sometimes things don’t always go to plan as this incident which saw five people die in Nechells, Birmingham. Video content posted to Twitter shared the press conference to the community. This could have been uploaded to Facebook too.

#9 Using humour and newsjacking

Lesson: Being creative about your communications and the channels you use can pay off.

As London Fire Brigade showed in their epic news jacking of the racy film 50 Shades of Grey imagination on comms works. A campaign followed in the wake of the film to talk about the number of times people had called for help with locked handcuffs, penis rings and other rather embarrassment-creating problems. The #50shadesofred campaign is a benchmark in public sector comms. Data driven it used a range of channels.

#10 Using data to allow people to build their own picture


Lesson: Data can be turned into something searchable to give people street-level insight.

Everyone’s experience is different. This is why it is refreshing to see West Midlands Fire Service use their incident data to allow you to search by postcode to see what incidents happened in your neighbourhood.


#11 Using Flickr as an image library

Lesson: A Flickr library can make thousands of images available for re-use.

Social photo storage site Flickr may not have the sexiness as Snapchat but as a place to be your public image library it remains peerless. There are several organisations in the UK using it well. However, the US use is the benchmark. Los Angeles Fire Department post images to the stream. They have almost 20,000 images. With an open licence anyone can use them. As the argument goes, public money paid for then so why shouldn’t with the permission of the photographer people and organisations re-use them?

LA fire


#12 Using Facebook for large communities

Lesson: Facebook pages are a start but not the last word on how people can be reached on the platform.

Pages can be a useful way to have some Facebook real estate although they deal with broadcasting to small corners of the web that can be shared on. Manchester Fire and Rescue and Scottish Fire and Rescue are examples.

But to really engage, you need to use Facebook as the page to comment and add content on other pages. Or join Facebook groups as an individual.

#13 Using Facebook for niche communities

Lesson: Facebook pages for smaller communities can be effective ways of reaching them. The Polish community, maybe. Or in Biker Down‘s case motorbike riders.

Facebook has the numbers so it is worth using. Seeing as it has the numbers yo can also carve out niches where people will congregate. There were more than 5,000 serious incidents with motorbikes in 2014. I’ve long believed that the single corporate page is almost always not the answer for large organisations. There are communities within them, so plug into them. If you are a biker the Biker Down page would work.

kent biker down

#14 Using Facebook quizzes

Lesson: Quizes reach people. Often people who are hard to engage with.

Facebook quizzes can engage with audiences that may well be resistant to leaflets and other comms. London Fire Brigade uses them well and creates them to accompany campaigns. They’ve done them to see if people fancy being firefighters, for example. With this one, they are celebrating their 150th anniversary with helmets.

london quiz 2

#15 Using Snapchat

nimesLesson: Yes, you can use Snapchat.

One of the good things about the web is coming across organisations doing good things in other countries. Take Sapeurs Pompiers Volontaires du Gard. They are a French fire brigade in Nimes in the south of the country who have an imaginative use of images on Twitter and Snapchat too.


Thanks for the input for this post from people across the Fire and Rescue comms community. In particular: Catherine Levin, Neil Spencer, Bridget Aherne, Sarah Roberts, Robert Coles, @Rubonist, Thanh Ngugen, Steven Morgan, Phillip Gillingham, Jim Williams, Pave Dhande, Leigh Holmes, Jack Grasby, Pete Richardson, Dave Walton and Dawn Whittaker.

FIRE ALERT: A slideshare and 12 things you can learn from fire comms

5870635462_d5997a095a_bSo, are you up to speed on how you’d handle the internal comms if two of your members of staff killed in a fire in a tower block? 

Or maybe you’d have it covered if there’s an explosion in a quiet street?

For the most part public sector communications can be pretty difficult. But with more than 500 deaths a year in fires in the UK there’s something uniquely challenging about handling the comms for a fire and rescue service. Especially at a time of tighter budgets.

How digital channels have utterly transformed communications is something that absolutely fascinates me. Forget six hours until the press conference. It’s now six minutes until the first tweet from an eyewitness and six hours until the first Facebook page set-up by residents.

You simply have to have social media in your emergency plan. It’s something I’ve written about before.

A few weeks back I was asked to speak at a FirePRO event in Manchester put together by the Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue. It was a rather useful event that gave an insight into the challenges. You can read the Storify the excellent Sam Thomas here. http://storify.com/samontheweb/fire-service-communicators.

Multi-agency use of digital media in a crisis

There’s a few small scale examples that have helped my thinking in Walsall. There’s the excellent use of social media by West Midlands Police and West Midlands Fire Service. It works because people on the ground have been given permission to tweet. So, when there’s an emergency there’s a network of people on the ground who can create an authoratative voice.

The approach in Walsall amongst police, council and other areas is simple. In a crisis, if it’s a police thing others with retweet. If it’s a council thing, others will share it.

The example of the Pheasey floods where 150 homes were flooded is an example of this. The presentation takes you through some of the tweets from that day.

Here’s 12 things that struck me.

1. There’s some cracking examples of social media case studies.  It’s at the sharp end and an ability to use different channels is essential.

2. In an emergency the first pictures will come from a resident. The Shaw gas explosion wiped out one house and damaged others. The first image didn’t come the day after in the evening paper. It came within minutes from a resident posting to Twitter.

3. Having a presence on Twitter helps get the message out in real time. Tweet within minutes and you’ll create an authoritative voice that people can home in on.

4. In an emergency think like a journalist. Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue sourced stories and content in the days after the explosion. The evacuated pets return. Families return.

5. In an emergency the traditional sign-off is dead. Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue kept partners up to speed but such was the speed that they needed to respond far quicker than waiting for sign-off from everyone concerned. The leisurely approach to news is over. Minutes count.

6. In a fatality put the organisation first and not the news media. When two firefighters died at a fire in Southampton Hampshire Fire & Rescue made a conscious decision to think about what they released. They decided to consider the needs of the dead employee’s work mates first. Then the needs of the organisation. Then the Press. That’s an important decision to make.

7. In a fatality put internal comms first. I’m massively impressed at the way Hampshire Fire & Rescure kept staff informed with things like daily updates from the inquest. That involved two comms officers rotating their coverage in the court.

8. There’s a need to have hard news skills in fire comms teams. Death sells. Death makes the media interested. To have the knowledge of how the media works and will react is an essential skill in this life threatening area of comms.

9. There’s a need to have digital skills in fire comms teams. With the changing news cycle social media is massively important.

10. Google hangouts are rather good. The line to Hampshire worked rather well.

11. Communications should be a job for specialists. It wasn’t an issue mentioned here but there’s a pressure in other parts of the country to create desk jobs for firefighters. Like PR. Or to make the cuts away from fire stations. Like in PR. But this is a fundamental mistake born from not knowing the value of proper communications. That’s actually an internal comms challenge for the whole of public sector communications.

12. It’s not just hard news. Much of the day-to-day centres around asking people to take greater care and not set fire to things. Digital communications can only be vital for this.

Hats off to speakers Bridget Aherne from Greater Manchester, Rachel Stanley and Dave Thackeray from Hampshire, Stuart Jackson and Paul Williams of Ice Creates and to Shelley Wright and Sam Thomas and her team for putting on an excellent event. There’s a seperate blog post about the Ice Creates work alone.

Picture credit

Fire hoses

EMERGENCY COMMS: ‘Whatever you do, put social media in your emergency plan.’

Fire, storm, pestilence or just a burst water main, in an emergency local government can swing into action.

In the UK it’s known as emergency planning and in the US emergency management. Whichever part of the world you are in it’s the part of the public sector that has plans for every eventuality.

For a comms person, it’s often only when there’s a problem you’ll speak to the emergency planners. Don’t let that happe  n. Make a pact with yourself.  Go and speak to them as soon as you can and sort out what to do with social media. Here is why.

At localgovcamp in Birmingham this year Ben Proctor, who runs the Like A Word consultancy, ran an excellent session on emergency planning and the social web. It’s something he writes about well too. His blog is well worth a look.

Catherine Howe, who does things with Public I, made the closing but clear point: “Whatever you do put social media in your emergency plan.”

Of course, I reflected smugly, my council has. There’s 3,000 people following the our corporate Twitter stream. What could go wrong?

Overnight there had been a minor incident that I’d missed on my Blackberry which had ran flat. Thankfully, it wasn’t more serious. But it showed very clearly where we’re blindsided.

If only comms people have the keys to the Facebook and Twitter things can easily fall down. What’s the answer? Go to where the audience is. Give them access to the corporate account. They’re generally very sensible people and know what to say. If the situation develops you can always step in.

So, what sort of role does social media play in an emergency?

In a true disaster the web falls down before SMS. But people are instinctively running to it.

A tornado in Joplin – In in the Mid West US town when a milewide tornado struck, the community rallied by building their own space on the web. At first this was to search for missing people and then as the disaster turned to recovery it charted that phase too. The moral? People have the tools like this or this community Facebook page to build things for themselves. They’re not waiting for the council to do it. They just will.

The EDL in Birmingham – When the far right English Defence League first rallied they used Twitter to spread misinformation. The police monitored by were powerless.  Third time they came they had an officer monitoring Twitter, Mark Payne checking each claim and then re-butting within minutes point by point.

Facebook in Queensland – When floods struck 3,000 comments a day were posted on the Queensland Police site. It took a 24-hour effort to monitor, explain and rebuff wild rumour.

The report into the Queendsland event singled out social media as part of a range of channels to take action with. Ben Proctor has blogged on it here. A key finding is to talk, prepare and practice. That’s as just as much relevant to comms people as anyone.

An interim report into the Queensland flood made a series of comments and recommendations. On social media it stated:

“As it may be possible for the public to post information directly to an official social media site there are concerns that a member of the public may post false information. For example, inaccurate information was posted on the Western Downs Regional Facebook page. However, where there are enough staff to monitor content social media can be a useful tool to respond to rumours in the community.”

Seven things comms people need to know

1. Share the keys – Give emergency planning an awareness of what social media is, encourage them to monitor and respond and give them the keys to the corporate feeds.

2. You can’t control the message – As if the main message of our times is needed to be repeated.

3. There’s a shorter turn around time to respond – Speed may be of the essence.

4. It’s not just about social media – It’s one channel of several. Important and growing but don’t think that everyone will be on Facebook.

5. It’s good for combating rumours – As a comms person that can save yourself time.

6. Journalists will follow and like – You can save time and effort by creating channels of communications.

7. If the balloon goes up it’ll take resources – Social media is free is a bit of a myth. The platform is free. The time spent to manage it, listen and update isn’t. The lessons of Queensland are that it can take up resources. But you do get valuable return on investment for doing so. Regular monitoring when there is a crisis is absolutely critical. Don’t link to a press release and forget about it.

Creative commons

Fire http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/5075758029/sizes/m/in/photostream/

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