The thin PR line: Inside the Met Police's crack comms squad

The Met Police's comms team speaks to PRWeek about running a 24/7 press bureau, crafting content that resonates with Londoners and the future of policing comms.

Metropolitan Police (l-r) Yvonne O’Hara, Ed Stearns and Anna de Vries
Metropolitan Police (l-r) Yvonne O’Hara, Ed Stearns and Anna de Vries

What is the structure at the Met Police directorate of media and comms office?

Ed Stearns, head of media: The directorate of media and communications is headed up by Martin Fewell. The department is split into news/social media, led by me, and internal comms, led by Yvonne O’Hara. The total number of people is 70. Within news and media, we have a 24/7 press bureau, overseen by Anna de Vries. Just over half of the team is in news/social media and the remainder is split between the other teams.

Also see: So, you want my job? Head of media at the Metropolitan Police

Does the Met ever use external comms or PR agencies to carry out projects?

Stearns: We don’t use PR agencies for a number of reasons. One is security clearance as well as the fact we have an in-house team that understands the business and what we do. Our PR team works closely with our marketing team on campaigns, as well as with internal comms. We don’t use crisis comms agencies either. In a crisis, the last thing we want is people who don’t know how the police operate and what we’re trying to achieve.

What are the most common press queries that you get?

De Vries: My team handles about 1,500 queries a month. Those range from officers phoning us up to tell us about incidents they know will attract media interest through to local papers asking about road traffic collisions. In a day, my team is talking to online reporters, local newspapers, the nationals and international media.

Stearns: It’s not unusual for us to be involved in stories that end up with a couple of page leads in the national newspapers, a story on the national broadcast news and a lot of others in between as well. We probably see more in a week than many press offices would see in a year.

De Vries: The majority of enquiries are reactive incident-based and then reactive criminal-investigation-based. If a stabbing shuts a road, the media is going to pick that up because local people are talking about it on social media, and they are then very interested in following it through. When we get things such as acid attacks, you move from local interest to national and international interest and that can happen quite frequently.

Stearns: Acid attacks have been happening since London existed, but because there’s a high-profile one and then another soon after that, it becomes a media issue. If another acid attack happened today, it would be reported in a different way than it would have been a month ago.

How do you communicate the Met’s messages about crime prevention and safety and which channels are most effective to carry this out?

Stearns: It’s about our comms having the cut-through and authority to reach Londoners. Traditional media is still hugely important and has a lot of influence, but social media is very effective, too.

Millions of people see our direct communications each week, from our main corporate Twitter account to our [other] 629 Twitter accounts, which go right down to ward level.

It’s a great way for officers to have conversations with the people they are policing. There has always been communication on a one-to-one level between police on the beat and the public, and highly localised social media is an extension of that.

It does not make sense for us to control every message that goes out. You have to remember that one of our major jobs at the Met Police is to provide information that helps our officers catch a criminal and we can do that via appeals in the traditional media through to putting our own video on Twitter which is then picked up by traditional media and seen by a million followers.

In any week, what is the balance between reactive and proactive comms work and which takes up more of the team’s time?

Stearns: The very nature of policing is reacting to events as they happen. We reacted to Grenfell Tower and to the terrorist attacks. You can be proactive about your reactive comms. With terrorism, we are very proactive in putting messaging out about how we respond and how the public can keep themselves safe. And we can proactively prepare for that sort of incident. Another example is knife crime. Of course we will react to a stabbing and we provide a reactive line to someone who has been stabbed. However, we’re also proactive by doing knife-crime operations. We are proactively reactive.

How important is the Met’s digital presence and comms within the press team’s output?

Stearns: We have tremendous content within the Met. We have pictures, video, graphics and information. Content can market our crime-prevention and it can market our appeals, so it is really important in helping us get our messages across. In terms of contact between the police and the public, there is a whole generation who don’t want to use the phone so they contact us through online reporting or other channels.

De Vries: We use a site called ‘mynewsdesk’ and that means we can quickly upload video and images. It also means we are able to break our own news on Twitter. We are not only able to service the media – because they get all the material they need to go with their story – we are able to present content in such a way that if you’re a local resident and you want to follow what’s going on, you can. Previously, with a breaking news story, the media would be talking about it on Twitter and it would take us longer to get to that phase.

How do you feel you’re treated by the media generally?

Stearns: There’s been a lot which has happened since 2011 with media/police relations. The British press has a job to do and I think in the main it is fair and professional in the way that it does it. They are there to hold us to account, quite rightly. I can count on one hand the number of official complaints we’ve made about things which have gone badly wrong. When you consider how much news we deal with, that’s pretty good. We’re happy for our officers to talk directly to the media and we wouldn’t do that if we didn’t think we had a relationship that would result in fair and balanced reporting. There has to be trust on both sides for that to happen.

De Vries: Equally, we have to understand that we deal with quite complex areas and you can’t expect someone to report fairly unless you have taken the trouble to explain it to them. A lot of the work we’ve done on the Grenfell fire has been to help the media understand things like the identification process and how we are searching the tower. Putting the time and effort into helping the media understand how we do things and why we do them helps them report fairly or ask us challenging questions from a position of strength.

How do you deal with negative comments on social or traditional media alongside the more proactive, fun stuff?

Stearns: In the majority of cases, it’s not going to get you very far to respond individually to people making negative comments; all you can do is point people to the facts. Our corporate account is a broadcast account rather than two-way. During major incidents, if there are lots of graphic images being shown, we sometimes put out a tweet asking people to use common sense and restraint, but we don’t police the internet or social media.

How do you see what you do evolving in the coming years?

Stearns: Content will be very important. The ability of content to get over prevention advice and what the Met is doing. Content will evolve over the coming years as will how we use it for messaging.

De Vries: We have focused on making our content usable across a number of platforms, but also using research and evidence from other parts of the department. Looking at what messaging resonates with people in different circumstances and seeing if we can build that into our reactive comms.

When recruiting for the team, what sort of people and skills do you look for?

De Vries: You need to be very calm and to have tremendous enthusiasm, because some days are very difficult. When you have incidents like the Westminster Bridge attack, you work very hard and you need enthusiasm to keep you going.

Stearns: You also need to have people who share the values of policing and understand that the work they are doing might help catch a criminal or save a life. You need compassion and courage.

Read next: Met launches child-safeguarding internal comms campaign in response to criticism from policing watchdog

Then: Inside the Met Police comms response to the Westminster attacks


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