Inside the Met Police comms response to the Westminster attacks

The past seven days have seen heightened tension, with the Metropolitan Police deployed to prevent a suspected terror attack - arresting a man armed with knives in Westminster - and two counter-terrorism raids on addresses in London.

Flowers and candle lights on Westminster Bridge following the attack (pic credit: Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images)
Flowers and candle lights on Westminster Bridge following the attack (pic credit: Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images)

In an interview with the senior heads of news, social media and internal comms at the Met, PRWeek reveals the thinking that went into the comms response around the attack on Westminster Bridge and Parliament.

At approximately 2.45pm on 22 March, a car was driven by Khalid Masood across Westminster Bridge at high speed, hitting pedestrians before crashing into the gates of the Houses of Parliament. Masood then got out, attacked police officers and stabbed PC Keith Palmer to death.

Just 82 seconds after the attack began, five people, including PC Palmer, an American tourist and Masood lay dead, while a further 50 people, including three police officers, were injured.

Initial reports to the comms team at New Scotland Yard, half a mile from the scene of the attack, were unclear.

Anna de Vries (pictured above), deputy head of media at the Metropolitan Police, said the comms team's phone queuing system suddenly showed a "massive spike" in calls, from one to 16.

She said: "The types of calls we were receiving in the first two minutes were reports of a person in the water, reports of a road traffic collision, reports of somebody under a bus. There were reports of explosions, shots fired, a man armed with knives. That's why the picture was quite confused at first, in terms of the actual nature and sequence of events."

Because of the proximately of the Met's HQ, they could see people running away from the vicinity of the attack.  

The comms team immediately switched into information gathering mode, contacting the police control room, looking at their computer systems  and preparing their digital comms team, led by Dylan Morrisroe, to respond.

Normal business, including a good news story the team had prepared about a four-year-old saving his mother's life by dialling 999, was put on hold as the comms operation moved into gear.

The comms operation would have multiple strands, including managing media calls, streamlining the comms response with other agencies and an internal comms operation to respond to the grief felt by colleagues at the death of PC Palmer.

Communicating with the public

But in those initial moments, communicating with the public first and foremost was the critical part of the comms operation.

The comms team exercises regularly against the possibility of such attacks and one part of this is to create prepared social media messages that can be adapted to the specific situation, enabling a swifter response.

Ed Stearns (pictured above), head of media at the Met, said: "The first bit of communications we put out was (a tweet) within seven minutes.

"That was probably the full communications you could put out at that stage because it's informing people that you are aware of what's going on… that's really important so that people feel reassured."

Stearns added: "The comms strategy from the very first minute is that a communication could save life, could change behaviour that will help the policing operation and reassure the public that the police are aware and dealing with the situation, whatever that will be.

"That was the clear strategy we were all working to, right from the very start."

The initial phase of the comms response was focussed on telling the public to avoid the area of the attack and that the police were responding as if it were a terrorist attack, until they knew otherwise.

De Vries said: "It might sound like quite a simple thing to say but in the past we've not said [anything] for quite a while and that has sometimes given the media the impression that we are not as operationally in control as we could be."

The social media team, one of whom had been nominated to liaise with Stearns and de Vries, were central to putting out the initial public information comms operation but they also had another important, behaviour-change function, during the initial stages.

Within 20 minutes of the attack, unpixillated images of the full horror of the aftermath, posted by members of the public, began to appear on social media channels.

The social team then put out a tweet urging the public and media to show restraint in posting images.

Morrisroe (pictured above) said: "This was a big behaviour-change tweet. After we put this tweet out, it encouraged social media, in effect, to start policing itself. By pointing out that that wasn't appropriate."

Within an hour, further tweets were put out to the public, encouraging them to help the police operation by uploading any images or videos to the Met's website.

Media relations

Meanwhile, the media relations exercise was also moving into action, with all non-urgent calls put on the back burner.

Stearns said: "[The attack] didn't stop some calls from local papers about local incidents coming in and we made it clear that we were not in a position to deal with that."

As the day continued, it fell to de Vries to prepare a statement for Commander BJ Harrington to read out to a waiting press pack at 4.40pm, just two hours after the attacks took place.

Stearns said: "We were keen to get someone up as soon as they had something meaty to say. BJ Harrington is a very experienced and good commander who was able to give reassurance."

Deciding exactly what to tell the assembled media in a pressurised situation is no easy task but how did the team decide what to say?

De Vries said: "We are talking to the media, so we understand where they are trying to take the story, but also [to] people who live and work in London. We understand what we would want to hear.

"You are of course constrained by the investigation but we try and tell the public what we are doing, why we're doing it and what they can expect to see over the coming days."

Stearns adds that it is important to publically explain why you can't say some things. This has the effect of managing further calls from the media asking the same question.

This was the case with requests for the police to name the attacker and, initially, an incorrect name was published by some media outlets before the comms team put out a "not for publication" advisory note to the media, urging them not to hamper the investigation.

The day after the attack, a national newspaper printed a front page picture of PC Palmer as he lay, dying, in Parliament Square, prompting an outcry from police officers and staff.

Steans said: "Officers were very unhappy about it. We wrote an advisory to the media and copied in IPSO to say that it was distressing.

"We can’t ban people from doing things - we're not the police of the media - but we have a duty to our staff."

Internal communications

The attack, which left left PC Palmer dead and three other police officers injured, also prompted a critical internal comms operation as 44,000 fellow officers and staff expressed their grief.

The initial phase of the internal comms operation was to create a rolling log of the incident on the Met's intranet system, to keep everyone informed with the most up-to-date information about the attacks.

There were also links for police staff to access occupational health if they had suffered psychological distress as a result of the attack.

Yvonne O'Hara, head of internal communications, said: "Once we knew that Keith Palmer had died, the internal comms had a different focus – making sure the organisation could grieve and offer its condolences."

O'Hara used a section of the intranet usually used to gather feedback from staff and dedicated it to an area where colleagues could pay tribute to PC Palmer and the injured officers.

O'Hara (pictured above) continued: "That was really important because the organisation was in mourning and we had to make sure, as well as having up-to-date information that they had a chance to do that emotional outpouring."

The comms team, by this point, were also in contact with PC Palmer's family and those of the other people murdered in the attack to help them manage their interaction with the media.

Stearns said: "Keith's family provided us with a photo that they wanted to see rather than one that might be found on Facebook or wherever else."  

The intranet page for PC Palmer received nearly four times as many views as a normal article, which was symptomatic of an organisation feeling the pain. But the organisation also wanted a visual symbol of the loss and it was decided, that day, to lower the Met's flag to half-mast.

Stearns said: "We took the flag at Scotland Yard down to half-mast that evening. We sent one of our staff members to film it coming down, which was a really poignant symbol of what had happened to the Met and summarised it in a picture more than any words could have done.

"It shows how a simple idea and a simple thing can really give the feel of the Met and also communicate to our staff, though external means, what we're doing and how we're doing it."

O'Hara set up screens that showed messages sent in from the public and from public figures regarding PC Palmer.

She said: "We were able to show the messages from the public on social media, to help support that grieving process and to say 'the public has got your back'. I think those messages were important in terms of the organisation feeling supported."

Inter-agency communication

In addition to all these strands, the operation had to manage comms with other agencies. The first job however, was to get the Met's 300 Twitter feeds to all repeat the same message from the central team.

Five minutes after the attack began, a call was put into members of the London Resilience committee comms team, which comprises the emergency services, the Mayor's office and the Cabinet Office, among others, to tell them there would be a conference call with all of them within 40 minutes.

The resilience committee, like the Met's comms team exercises together regularly.

Stearns said: "The agency that leads the response, often the police, is the one that leads the communication. Everyone knows that so it runs very smoothly.

"Even before we talk to each other in a conference call, that lead agency will lead the communications and the others will retweet that communication."

De Vries added: "The first two agencies I contacted were fire and ambulance, just because they have an emergency services role.

"We exercise together so it becomes really seamless and we understand each other's areas of responsibility and know where the boundaries are and what we would lead on and what others would do."

Lessons for the future

Every operation is scrutinised after the event to see if anything could be done differently or better next time, and it was the same with the Westminster attacks.

What is clear is that police officers value the input of the comms team more than they ever have before.

"They see it very much as an operational tool rather than seeing us as a department that sorts out the headache of having lots of media attention", Stearns concludes.

"Once upon a time it wouldn't have been, which shows how much comms has moved on. There are some things you look at and think 'could we have put out some of our generic messages quicker or not?'

"There is nothing major we would look at doing differently, but then not every incident is the same."

The comms response in numbers:

  • 55 tweets with 21.6 million impressions on day one of the attack
  • 790,000 engagements (eg click-throughs to website or social video)
  • Biggest tweet: "Please use common sense and restraint" - 6.3 million impressions and 229,000 engagements
  • Biggest Facebook post: Video showing the Met's flag being lowered to half-mast out of respect to PC Palmer - 1.7 million reach and 70,000 engagements

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