I’m really grateful to Inspect Lee Lyons, Sussex Police (@Insp_Lyons) for sharing with me his recent experience of social media use at the scene of an incident, and the subsequent national media attention that generated. His story raises a number of key organisational and operational issues which I will explore later in this post.

First, his story…

Hastings Pier Fire

“Hastings was originally a Victorian town, and like many Victorian towns it has a pier.  Now in recent years the pier at Hastings has become embroiled in ownership disputes and fallen into a state of disrepair and neglect.  The local authority together with a local community group recently announced plans to renovate and regenerate the pier, funding was in the process of being secured and the future was starting to appear bright.

At 1am on 5th October 2010 everything changed. I was the duty police Inspector in East Sussex that morning that morning and vividly remember the first reports from units arriving at scene, the exclamation in their voice when they reported that “Hastings Pier is on fire”.  Within five minutes I was on scene, with the duty sergeant from Hastings, to watch a little bit of local history disappear.

My first instincts were entirely professional, there were road closures to get in place, suspects to detain and transport to custody and important and necessary liaison with East Sussex Fire and Rescue; but if the truth is told there came a point where I found myself with 30 seconds to myself and in front of me a sad but amazing spectacle.  In those few moments of reflection I whipped out my mobile phone and took a couple of snaps and a short video, I then tweeted (with link to photo):

Hastings Pier is on fire. http://plixi.com/p/48792824

Then a short while later –

“More Hastings pier. http://plixi.com/p/48795577”


some video for you

Now I sent these images with very little thought and certainly not prepared for the sudden on-rush of media interest; my tweets started being re-tweeted. I received a couple of polite enquiries from some followers, then suddenly a phone call from BBC news.

BBC – “Can we use your photos?”

Me – “Er, I don’t see why not….”

Within moments my photos were on the BBC website, and then Sky News wanted in on the action…. Except they wanted the video, again I agreed.

Less than thirty minutes later my video formed part of a breaking news segment on Sky News, slightly embarrassed my mind turned to whether I had actually done something that I should not have done.  I was there to perform an important function and would the public, colleagues or my bosses think that I had nothing better to do than hang around shooting video and taking pictures?

I have had much time to think about this since, and I have discussed with the head of Sussex Police media relations and had a short conversation with my BCU commander (You can follow both on Twitter – @ChiefSuptSmith and @nickcloke).  Both of whom are very relaxed about the fact that my photos were used in this way, in fact one of my pictures made the BBC ‘photos of the week’ featurehttp://bbc.in/9pEExD.

What were the ramifications of my tweets?  Without a doubt the media were able to respond to events in a way that satisfied the local communities clamour for information, there was a risk that a ‘flash mob’ would arrive at the scene but this didn’t really transpire.  My photos were very well received by journalists on local, regional and national levels.

Would I do the same again? Most definitely; to refuse to engage with the media when something so visible and obvious was happening would have been folly.  The truth is a lot of police, firefighters and other people were working very hard to save the pier. Did my actions hinder that effort? Not one little bit.

The one lesson I have learned is that if you push stuff into the public domain you must be prepared to talk to the people that receive that information, don’t be precious about your comments but if the media start to get pushy (and they will!) be firm and hold your ground.  Remember, you have done them a favour, not the other way around.”

So. Questions and observations…

Lee states that he ‘sent these images with very little thought’ and only afterwards did he think ‘whether I had actually done something that I should not have done’. He is fortunate that he works in a Force that takes a progressive approach to media relations, in some forces it is possible that the support that he got from his BCU Commander and Head of Media Relations may not have been so forthcoming. Bullet dodged. Certainly our police colleagues in America are facing a very different organisational approach to social media use by officers at crime scenes (and let’s not forget that this was a crime scene. Two men were arrested on suspicion of Arson and are currently on bail until early December). Dallas Police Department, for instance, recently introduced a policy which forbids officers from taking pictures at crime scenes and then e-mailing them to each other, and the issue of officers using social media at crime scenes is a hot topic amongst law enforcement agencies across the US.

The broader issue for Chief Officers and Force Communication and Engagement Teams is, do you actually have a policy, is it know about and understood and, more importantly, have you reality tested people’s knowledge of it recently?

I’m a huge fan of one page ‘don’t do it if your mum wouldn’t approve of it’ policies, so I’m not advocating anything lengthy, but the reality of our world is that social media is now ubiquitous. Just last week the co founder of facebook was quoted as saying “Two to five years from now, the whole question of what other social networks you use will be moot, because it will all be social”

So, is your policy progressive or defensive? Whilst you’re thinking about that, bear in mind that even the Pentagon has changed its stance on social media from a position of  ’a fortress to be defended’ to ‘a battlefield to be navigated’. Quite frankly, the defensive position is untenable. The Pentagon found that they were being left behind and left out, unable to communicate effectively. Hence the change.

Secondly, just issuing a ‘thou shalt not’ policy won’t cut it. What training, support and advice are you providing? Some forces are and do, some don’t, won’t and should!

Thirdly, and potentially more importantly, what tools are you using to monitor and engage your staff, your public, your supporters and your detractors. Data from 3 month old surveys, by itself, probably doesn’t provide anymore the speed of organisational insight that you need to make effective use of diminishing resources and to effectively position the organisation around emerging issues. There are a range of free tools that you can use, but if you’re serious about effective ‘strategic listening’ you need to make use of the professional platforms and services that are now available. Social media is a strategic tool which should inform and be ‘owned’ at the most senior levels in a force, not just a communications channel, and forces need to see and use it as such.

Social media touches everything and the world is much faster now. If you aren’t sure just how fast, ask Lee Lyons.

This post was previously published on the Open Eye Communications Blog