Battle lines drawn between activists and police in comms war

A series of highly damaging comms blunders by counter-terror police in treating environmental movement Extinction Rebellion (XR) as a potential threat have exposed fundamental differences in the approaches taken by the comms teams on both sides.

Police getting to grips with Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of The Green Party, during an XR protest in London last October  (Pic credit: Ollie Millington/Getty Images)
Police getting to grips with Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of The Green Party, during an XR protest in London last October (Pic credit: Ollie Millington/Getty Images)

Counter Terrorism Police South East (CTPSE), based at Thames Valley Police, was widely criticised last week after The Guardian revealed that XR was included in a terrorism prevention guide.

The climate change group was listed among a list of extremist ideologies, including neo-Nazi terrorism and a pro-terrorist Islamist group, that would justify reporting people to the government's Prevent counter-terrorism programme.

Acts of violence

Among the content relating to XR, the guide stated: "While concern about climate change is not in itself extreme, activists may encourage vulnerable people to perform acts of violence, or commit such acts themselves."

The 'Safeguarding Young People and Adults from Ideological Extremism' guide was distributed to police officers, government organisations and teachers, who by law have to report concerns about radicalisation.

Backlash

Sir Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary and former chief prosecutor in England and Wales; Sir Peter Fahy, former head of Prevent; and Lord Carlile, former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, were among those who condemned the inclusion of XR in the guide.

Police retreat

There was a marked difference in the comms strategy used by activist groups and the police.

CTPSE's initial response to The Guardian was to say that it would review the guidance. It then confirmed the document had been circulated to "statutory partners" and had been recalled.

While the unit released a statement on request to the media, it did not make its position public in any comms channels.

Detective Chief Superintendent Kath Barnes, head of CTPSE, said: "I would like to make it quite clear that we do not classify Extinction Rebellion as an extremist organisation."

She described the inclusion of the group in the guide as "an error of judgement" and said: "We will now be reviewing all of the contents as a result."

Barnes added: "The document was designed for a very specific audience who understand the complexities of the safeguarding environment we work within and who have statutory duties under Prevent. We are in the process of confirming who it has been shared with and recalling it."

Taking the initiative

In contrast, XR went on the offensive, issuing a strongly worded comment within an hour of the story going online.

Headlined "How dare they", the response dubbed the police actions a "terrorism slur" and focused on the "dire state of our planet".

XR included comments from one of its supporters, former police chief superintendent Rob Cooper, who said: "I find it astonishing that police in the South East of England regarded Extinction Rebellion as an extremist group. XR is non-violent group working hard to save the planet from government inaction and a climate and ecological emergency."

Another XR supporter, Paul Stephens, a former detective sergeant in the Metropolitan Police, said: ""I have never seen anyone in Extinction Rebellion encourage violence in any way to anyone. Quite the reverse. As a former police officer of 34 years experience, I seriously doubt the political independence of those who published this nonsense."

Speed of response

Ronan McNern, XR coordinator of media messaging UK, told PRWeek: "The press team got a reply out within 30 or 40 minutes of the story going live and we alerted that to all of the media. and that first wave of coverage took our lead, which… was a very deliberate strategy from us."

He described how the extremism label is "chilling for any protest".

McNern commented: "I did the PR for the Occupy movement and I've been called a domestic extremist before… in court I was accused of being a threat to the national security of the UK and all I was doing – or the 10 of us were doing, because we were arrested outside the Bank of England – we were protesting in relation to social inequality."

The growth of XR, with a multitude of stakeholders and networks, means that attempting to have a proactive comms strategy is easier said than done, according to McNern.

The group's comms team had to respond to another controversial story last weekend.

Controversy

The Guardian reported a Counter Terror Policing document used for training featured XR alongside a number of extremist rightwing groups, including Combat 18 and the National Front, as well as National Action, which has been banned for terrorist violence.

XR was swift to post a response online titled "Crude divisive dangerous."

It stated: "This labeling of ordinary people – grandparents, doctors, pregnant mothers, bus drivers, rabbis and more – concerned about the environment is deeply concerning and puts them at risk at a time when society needs to come together and face the climate and ecological emergency."

Police perspective

CTP also took a proactive approach, putting a blog post by Dean Haydon, senior national co-ordinator for UK counter-terrorism, on its website. The blog included a picture of part of the document in question, and was promoted on social media.



Haydon explained that the guide is not intended to portray all the groups that it features as extremist organisations.


Now read: How we in counter terror comms responded to negative coverage over XR 



Instead, it is aimed at helping people understand different signs and symbols they may come across, he said.

He highlighted a statement in the document that "not all of the signs and symbols noted within this document are of counter-terrorism interest".

Referring to XR and "other legitimate protest groups" Haydon said: "We don't consider those groups to be extremist, we do not consider them to be a threat to national security. Nor do we consider membership or affiliation to XR or other environmental groups to be reason for a Prevent referral."

Christopher Terris Taylor, media manager, Counter Terrorism Policing, explained why the blog was needed. He told PRWeek: "You’re lucky to get more than a couple of pars to respond with in an article, so we knew we needed to make our point in several ways – firstly a strong rebuttal to the Guardian and secondly a blog post where we could give the more nuanced explanation of why the document was created and what its intended use was."

He said: "A key part of that blog post was the page of the document where it states that the groups mentioned were not necessarily terrorism related, because that directly contradicted the thrust of the Guardian article – which argued that CTP considers environmental groups like XR to be extremist."

The blog was deliberately times to coincide with the article’s publication and CTP's promotion of it on social media went from using its official accounts to those of relevant senior officers, according to Terris Taylor.

"We also shared our Guardian response, blog post and key messages with stakeholders and even with influential former officers who are often approached by the media to comment on the latest CT stories – to make sure that our message was reaching as many people as possible."

He commented: "Our approach will always be to ensure that our side of the story is readily available online, on social media channels and anywhere else the story might appear." 

Police deny considering XR to be a terror group

Earlier this week the City of London Police came under fire from XR after it emerged that the force had dubbed the group one of its "key threats" in a counter-terrorism assessment.

The report, presented to a scrutiny committee of the City of London Corporation, stated: "The force has continued close liaison (which has included the dissemination of intelligence) with partners and pan-London agencies regarding the key threats, particularly with regard to far-right organisations and Extinction Rebellion."

In contrast to the approach taken by CTP's comms team, City of London Police opted to take a reactive stance, issuing a statement in response to a request by The Guardian for comment.

This said: "City of London Police does not consider Extinction Rebellion to be a terrorist organisation. Ahead of the protests in the summer, our officers, who have regular contact with businesses in the area, spoke to them to ask them to consider the impact of the protests to their business continuity and to make plans accordingly."

Asked whether the comms mistakes by police over the past week would galvanise greater support for its cause, a member of the XR press team told PRWeek: "It's hard to tell; I hope so."



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