Communications and Engagement – Social Media isn’t always the answer!

When it comes to communicating with large crowds, it’s easy to assume that social media, is the best possible tool to use. Social media as a fantastic tool which helps the police service to engage with our communities but when it comes to really large crowds we must take into account the limitations of technology.

We have been keen to test some of the learning around the use of social media in relation to police operations around large-scale protests and gathering and recently we worked closely with the commander of the police operation for the protest march in relation to Stafford Hospital.

We both recognised that it terms of risk of police issues, this particular event was very low, but the police still had a clear role in working with the stewards to ensure public safety and the manage the impact on the local community, particularly in terms of traffic on a busy Saturday afternoon. It’s also important to remember that the safe stewarding of the is the responsibility of the organisers and any communication has to reflect this.

The organisers of the protest had used social media to gain support throughout, so on the day it was our role to work alongside the ground commander to assist with the communication and engagement with the crowds.

It’s also worth mentioning that many people turned out to protest as a result of more traditional media exposure, thousands of posters had been produced and displayed to encourage the local community to attend yet social media only indicated a few thousand might get involved. The mix of ages ranges was also a factor in terms of engagement channels used.

The protestors started to gather in the town centre and we monitored social media via tablet and phone. As the numbers continued to grow the technology issues we expected started to become visible.

Thousands of people in one place, all with mobile phones, resulted in very limited access to data on mobile telephone networks. that of course included our mobile access. Mobile networks are designed to protect delivery of core services first, these are voice and SMS.

Thousands of protesters NOT using social media
Thousands of protesters NOT using social media

The reality of course is that everyone was experiencing the same issue, and once I managed to secure WiFi access it was clear that the volumes of social media messages from those involved in the protest had significantly reduced. Looking at the crowds you couldn’t see people typing on mobiles but they were now engaged locally with those around them, yes taking photos and video but their engagement was now off-line.Post event we reviewed the social media channels and the number of post across the platforms did fall whilst the crowd was together, as the crowds dispersed the levels of postings increased.

So in learning from the operation, communications is a key element of any large event, but sometimes it’s worth thinking about the mix of more traditional communications tools available alongside the digital communications. The police have a fantastic range of tools available including backpack PA systems, trailer based message boards combined with powerful public address and of course don’t forget the most important and influential ones – the stewards and police staff on the ground who can engage directly with the crowd.

In this case social media helped to engage more with the crowds before and after and the wider community affected throughout.

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