Case Study: Tackling a burning issue

The August 2011 riots were a tough reputation challenge for public bodies and retailers, as shops burned and goods were looted. But saying as little as possible remains the default mode for the PROs involved.

Credit: London News Pictures/Rex Features
Credit: London News Pictures/Rex Features

For a retail operation, crises do not come much bigger than having your stores attacked and incinerated while TV stations broadcast the frightening scenes globally. But for four days in London during August 2011, this was the reality for many high street brands.

Bleary-eyed PROs were woken early on Sunday 7 August to hear that lawlessness had flared in Tottenham, north London, with hundreds of people looting shops, setting fire to buildings and vehicles, and attacking the police with bricks and bottles: products ranging from trainers to flat-screen TVs were stolen as the authorities looked on.

If PROs were slow to respond, it only reflected a wider reality: Prime Minister David Cameron, Home Secretary Theresa May and London Mayor Boris Johnson were all on holiday when the riots started. 'I think the police would accept that they didn't react quickly enough,' BBC home editor Mark Easton told PRWeek. 'But this was in the absence of an ongoing political narrative: the consequences would have been instant if Parliament had been sitting and politicians had been around. But they were away and it took people a long time to realise what had happened.'

Unwelcome media attention

There was no such problem for those on the other side of the law: Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger were used by rioters to pass on information as violence spread to nearby Wood Green and Enfield, as well as leapfrogging elsewhere in the capital: Brixton, Woolwich, Clapham and, in particular, Croydon in the south, Ealing in the west and Hackney in the east.

BlackBerry became the brand most associated with the disturbances by respondents to PRWee k/OnePoll's reputation survey three weeks after the riots, followed closely by Facebook and Twitter. BlackBerry's Messenger service - private, encrypted and in many cases untraceable - received a lot of unwelcome media attention, leading the device's manufacturer, Research In Motion, to issue one of the most high profile statements by any brand during the riots. It confirmed on the Monday that it had contacted the police to help assess whether Messenger played a key role in organising the disturbances.

In contrast, 83 per cent of those questioned in the survey said they did not feel any more negatively towards brands such as JD Sports and Currys, which were high-profile victims.

This may be the result of the shops being blameless victims of opportunistic lawlessness - but it seems that PR professionals also tried very hard to suck the oxygen out of any controversy. 'There was intense interest (from the media) partly because of the column inches that needed to be filled,' says Mark Webb, head of media relations at Dixons Retail, which owns Currys. 'Our press team got a lot of calls and it was a case of putting out prepared statements and little more to reduce column inches. We did everything reasonably possible to stay out of the limelight.'

Politicians seemed to follow a similar strategy. On the Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the Government was functioning as normal while Number 10's morning press briefing skirted round whether Cameron would cut short his vacation in Tuscany.

In the event, Cameron returned after three days of the riots, announced that he would chair a meeting of the emergency committee Cobra, pledged to get 16,000 police officers on London's streets and recalled Parliament.

The Metropolitan Police's comms during the London riots was handled by deputy director of public affairs Chris Webb and chief press officer Ed Stearns. They invited press crews to arrests at looters' houses, gave a constant stream of arrest numbers to the media and showed a 'rogues gallery' of criminals photographed at the riots on a Flickr site. This 'dissuasion' strategy was designed to stop more people joining in while at the same time reassuring residents that action was being taken.

In the thick of it

'We had a fair few calls from journalists,' recalls Polly Cziok, head of comms and consultation at the London Borough of Hackney. 'But on the Monday they didn't need to be phoning because they had enough to report on (at the scene) and also knew we couldn't say much.'

Paul Lewis, special projects editor at The Guardian, was in the thick of the riots and he agrees with Cziok - up to a point.

'When you're reporting on the ground the focus is on accurately relaying what's happening around you,' he says. 'But that said, it was useful to me to be able to phone police press officers to get guidance (on what was happening) from them or access to areas (that had been sealed off).'

The Met says its 24-hour press office fielded about 1,000 press calls a day, and set up dozens of one-to-one interviews with senior officers.

But that was not the case with every press operation. Lewis travelled throughout London, Birmingham and Gloucester in the first days of the riots and is even-handed about the difficulties facing police and government PROs in crises.

'They weren't unhelpful, they were coping as well as they could under pressure,' he says. 'But riots happen through the night and into the early hours and often - but not always - that's when these agencies (and their PR operations) are closed. I recall a few times when I was talking to answerphones.'

Crisis planning in practice

Both Webb and Cziok point out that they were prioritising internal comms as the riots happened, ensuring staff were safe and property was protected.

In Hackney there was also the chance to put crisis planning into practice since the press team was evacuated, along with all other council staff, from its town hall offices.

'It was challenging as communicators but it brought our business continuity plans into sharp relief,' Cziok laughs.

On Tuesday, journalists' questions switched to why the riots happened, and Cziok warns: 'You have to balance the need for answers with the temptation to start pontificating. We had to be really careful about laying the blame and focused on what we did know: that the clean-up had been done really quickly, emphasising the community spirit and work of volunteers.'

The first anniversary of the riots will come at the height of the London 2012 Olympics. In a city that saw its worst violence in a generation, the world's media will be gathered and might just be keen to find something other than athletics to talk about.

PROs from the affected brands should brace themselves for more awkward questions.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND CRISIS

Social media performed several functions during the London riots, drawing praise along with condemnation. While platforms were blamed for fuelling the riots, research by The Guardian showed a more nuanced picture: its database of 2.5 million riot-related tweets showed the majority of surging traffic happened after the first verified reports of incidents in a given area. Also, Twitter's #riotcleanup hashtag and feed, encouraging people to help the clean-up operation, was widely seen as a force for good. Millions of messages of support for police and firefighters were left on Facebook, while both London Fire Brigade and the Metropolitan Police used Twitter feeds to report on incidents as they happened. Such channels were also a key facet in news coverage - and not just for reporters on the ground. Showing PROs just how far and how fast social media coverage can go, Anthony De Rosa, social media editor at Reuters in New York, put together a compelling narrative of the Saturday night riots in Tottenham. 'I storified this when it happened and it landed as the top story on our home page for a few hours,' he told PRWeek. 'I was watching updates via social media, so that tells you that there was lots of Twitter and Facebook chatter from reporters and people involved in the riots. Anjali Mullany of the New York Daily News was one of the first people I noticed aggregating reports on Twitter and she was doing quite a good job at it - doing the job of a journalist with Twitter as the conduit.'

TIMELINE - SIX DAYS OF RIOT COMMS

Sunday 7 August

@metpoliceuk 42 arrests so far following last night's disorder in #Tottenham

London Ambulance Service says it 'attended a number of calls in the Tottenham High Road area'

Monday 8 August

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg insists Government is functioning 'as normal'

Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor of London, says rioters are 'feral youth who fancy a new pair of trainers'

Acting Met commissioner Tim Godwin urges parents to ask 'where their children are'

Met says there were three times as many officers on duty on Sunday night as there were on Saturday

London Mayor Boris Johnson issues statement from Canada: 'This madness must stop.'

BlackBerry manufacturer Research In Motion says it has contacted police to assist with inquiries

Tuesday 9 August

London Fire Brigade answers 2,169 calls between Monday night and Tuesday morning - 15 times usual number

London Ambulance Service called to 'large numbers of incidents associated with the violent disturbances across the capital overnight'

Wednesday 10 August

Prime Minister David Cameron condemns 'mindless selfishness'

Number 10 says 16,000 police on London streets last night - compared with 3,000 on Sunday

Contingency plans for water cannon now in place and justice system 'ready' to process offenders u Cabinet Office quotes young people involved with National Citizen Service shocked by the riots

Thursday 11 August

London Mayor announces £50m regeneration fund for affected areas

Friday 12 August

Dixons Retail launches £50,000 reward for information leading to arrest and conviction of looters

AGENCY VIEWS

"Currys and JD Sports looked and probably felt like they were under attack. But viewers could see it was their shops and not their brands getting damaged. As a rule of thumb, if any other brand 'could' comment and missiles are not aimed directly at your brand, think twice before entering the fray."

Rob Shimmin MD, Shimmin Brand Protection

"The 2011 riots were a benchmark example of conventional reporting being overtaken by the digital world, with comms control being ripped away from a business at speed and in multiple directions at once. It's not pretty."

Kevin Coles Director, Nexus

"One of the most telling issues about the riots was highlighted by Paul Lewis, special projects editor of The Guardian. In trying to pull together the story of what was happening he said he spent much of his time talking to answerphones or the phone was just ringing out. Hardly the crisis comms response for 2012."

Mike Hogan Senior consultant, Link Associates International.

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