At 8.51am on 7 July, one minute after the first bomb exploded under King's Cross Station, Transport for London director of group media Paul Mylrea was told via his pager that a large power surge had cut all power to London Underground, and that 'loud bangs' had been heard. As the minutes passed it became clear that a major
incident was unfolding; the crisis comms teams of the emergency services would be facing their busiest day.
The Tube and bus bombings shook an unsuspecting public. But as the media jammed switchboards for news, for the PR teams manning the press offices it was a scenario they had long rehearsed for. Only the previous Friday, London Underground had gone over its crisis drill in the event of a major incident in the capital.
When a major emergency in London occurs, PR is co-ordinated by the Gold Communications Group, chaired by Chris Webb, deputy director of public affairs at the Metropolitan Police. It includes senior representatives from the Met, TfL, the Mayor's office, the Association of London Government and the emergency services. Here, the Met's messages are given priority. 'In a multi-site incident, effective co-ordination of news is crucial,' says Webb.
For the other communications heads of the organisations affected on 7 July, one of their first actions was to manage staffing according to their crisis strategy. This differed depending on operational needs – TfL for example, sent six of its 20 press officers to the affected Underground stations to aid workers and keep media at bay. The London Fire Brigade's policy was to keep press officers at base manning the phones, leaving press liaison officers – uniformed fire officers with media training – to talk to journalists at the scene.
At the Royal London Hospital, which received the bulk of casualties, director of communications Susan Cunnington-King divided her team of eight into two groups. One group was left in the Aldgate press office dealing with calls while Cunnington-King led the hospital team to manage the mounting media scrum and channel information from doctors to journalists.
At the Scotland Yard press office, the priority was to keep as many of the eight-strong team on the phones as possible. 'We despatched two press officers to Aldgate when we heard initial reports of one explosion,' says Webb. 'But as soon as we heard about Tavistock Square we knew this was no accident. We didn't want to run out of people so everyone else stayed put.'
In fact, 'staying put' was the most important message broadcast by Met officers that morning. Broadcasters were told to tell people to tune into the TV or radio, despite the conflicting reports doing the rounds of the number and type of devices that had exploded.
Met commissioner Sir Ian Blair made his first televised statement at 11.15am, deflecting speculation about al-Qaeda's involvement by concentrating on the Met's message to stay indoors and listen for announcements.
At the same conference, London Fire Brigade officers emphasised the training they had practised since 9/11 to check for signs of chemical, biological or nuclear threats. At the Royal London Hospital doctors responded to questions about casualty numbers while giving the impression that their organisation was in control. 'People needed to hear that we were well prepared and that the victims were
getting the best possible care,' explains Cunnington-King.
From a presentation point of view, the hospital's media team says it was boosted by the fact that doctors who appeared on BBC show Trauma – filmed at the hospital – were on duty that morning and could provide commentary. 'Being able to show viewers familiar faces was definitely an advantage,' Cunnington-King says.
Although emergency services PROs dealt with hundreds of interview requests around the scenes of the bombs effectively, domestic media and PR officers identified the need for a media centre. One of the first actions of the Gold group was to set up such a centre at the Queen Elizabeth II building near Parliament Square. Sky News associate editor Simon Buck, who sits on the Media Emergency Forum which evolved the idea of a central media location, believes the centre was an important step forward. 'This was the first time most journalists had covered a story on this scale. Having the media centre made it easier for journalists to get live briefings,' he says.
But for all the planning, 7 July brought comms teams challenges they could never have foreseen. Chief among these was the almost immediate, and sometimes overwhelming, quantity of so-called 'citizen reporting'. With a public hungry for news, blogs with eyewitness reports – and wild conspiracy theories – became almost as popular as output from the major broadcasters. For PROs battling to minimise panic and misinformation it was a distraction they did not need.
'We had to knock journalists down quickly when they phoned about these stories by checking what our operations people said,' explains Webb. But it meant the Met's press office spent a lot of the day denying there had been a bomb at Waterloo, that there were two other, unexploded bombs (information apparently sourced from the CIA) and that a sniper had been shot at Canary Wharf. There was no time for PROs to contact those responsible for the blogs – they simply had to continue to state the facts and hope the public believed the official statements.
Frustration and misinformation
PROs also had to deal with a vast amount of eyewitness statements fed speedily to journalists by media-savvy Londoners. 'There were reports soon after the bus bomb that people had seen someone fiddling with a bag, but we couldn't respond to that,' recalls Webb. 'We had to keep emphasising that our job at the time was not to get drawn into discussions about causes.'
At TfL there was frustration that the early reports of a power surge were widely believed to be a deliberate ploy by the authorities to minimise panic. 'The simple fact is that there was a power surge,' says Mylrea. 'It was one effect of the bombs and the first thing that our control room picked up. I was frustrated by the critical response to that: if we hadn't been so open with information we would have probably been accused of holding back.'
There was also the problem of self-appointed 'experts' being quoted on TV. Webb remembers a spokesperson from a passenger transport body telling viewers to evacuate the city. 'The last thing we wanted was millions of people on the streets,' he says.
More problems developed when the authorities ran out of answers. Journalists were frustrated by apparent inconsistencies in statements, another fuel for conspiracies. 'I still can't understand why it took them [TfL and the Met] days to tell us that all the Tube bombs went off virtually simultaneously,' says The Guardian crime correspondent Rosie Cowan. 'They gave us little until they could establish exactly what had happened. It was obviously a well-rehearsed plan.'
There is no doubt though, says Webb, that the Media Emergency
Forum improved the ability of PROs and journalists to work together in the event of a crisis. The Met, for instance, gave off-the-record briefings to explain why it took time to identify bodies. 'This way journalists could understand the difficulties our officers faced without quoting the full horror about body parts,' adds Webb.
He found that the period following 7 July and the failed bombings two weeks later were tougher to manage than the initial day of drama, principally because of the difficulty of trying to fill a media vacuum without factual information. Did this pressure have an adverse effect when Jean Charles de Menezes was shot at Stockwell station by police officers? Webb prefers not to comment on the press office's role in the false reports of the incident due to the inquiry by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Commissioner Blair had told a press conference that 'the man was challenged and refused to obey instructions'. As this is now known to be false, it appears that Blair was badly briefed for his TV appearance. There is also the issue of journalist briefings on 21 July, in which senior police officers confirmed that de Menezes had caused police to believe he was a terrorist.
James Kelliher, client services director at crisis management agency Whiteoaks, believes the need for speed overtook the desire for accuracy and that the Met's planning was inadequate: 'The Met clearly had a plan for the events of 7 July and 21 July. But look what happened when something occurred which they couldn't have planned for.' The Gold group, as well as the Met, will be waiting keenly for the results of the inquiry.
There are other, more tactical, lessons that PROs can derive from the bombings and their aftermath. Most practically, the need for satellite phones to be available in case mobile phones or landlines fail. Mylrea also admits he should have kept his B-rolls more up to date to meet the requests for recent bus and Tube footage.
At the Royal London Hospital, Cunnington-King is considering dedicating part of the website to useful information in a major emergency. Such a facility might have reduced the 25,000 calls made to the hospital switchboard after the bombs.
It appears the comms channels between the Met and businesses may also need streamlining. Regester Larkin director Tim Johnson says his clients experienced difficulty finding out when they should allow staff to go home on 7 July.
But these are relatively minor amendments given the scale of the events. Johnson says the Met perfectly communicated the three C's – 'concern, control and commitment (to preventing further bombings)'. Rob Shimmin, founder of crisis comms agency Shimmin.biz, adds: 'There was an extraordinary display of professionalism, led by three superior communicators – Sir Ian Blair, Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone. I liked the Met officers' statements branding Londoners as stoical during a crisis.'
7 July was a great testament to crisis planning. But it also served to illustrate the fact that plans can only guide one in the right direction – the rest depends to a large extent on remaining flexible to the needs of the hour, as Westminster Council's PR team discovered. In the days after the bombings it was asked to perform a number of tasks beyond the usual bounds of PR, including setting up a family liaison centre and a mortuary, and arranging a memorial for the victims.
And all the planning in the world cannot mitigate the horror that this kind of incident produces. 'The textbook response belied the emotions of the day,' says Cunnington-King. 'Nothing could have prepared us for what we felt and saw.'
HOW EVENTS UNFOLDED
8.50 Three bombs go off on the London Underground: between King's Cross and Russell Square, Liverpool Street and Aldgate, and at Edgware Road.
8.51 Transport for London director of group media Paul Mylrea (right) is alerted by pager that there has been a power surge on the Underground system. A press officer is posted to the control room to keep the comms team informed of developments.
9.00 Managers of the Metropolitan Police's communications team are just finishing their morning meeting when a press officer tells them
that an incident has been reported at Aldgate station. Two minutes later he relays reports of an explosion.
9.10 Mylrea despatches six TfL press officers to the sites of the explosions to manage media. The 14 press officers remaining at the Victoria Street head office have already started to field media calls, the first of which comes from Capital Radio.
9.12 Met deputy director of public affairs Chris Webb makes the First Alert call from the London Resilience crisis plan – informing partner organisations in the Gold Communications Group,
as well as emergency services, TfL, the Association
of London Government, the Mayor's office and the Cabinet Office.
9.16 Sky News is the first TV channel to broadcast any details of the bombings, referring to reports of an explosion at Liverpool Street.
9.25 The first official statement is released to the media from the Met, saying that police are responding to an incident at Aldgate station.
9.26 First conference call between the Gold Communications Group leaders.
9.30 The Royal London Hospital, the nearest to Aldgate, activates its major accident plan.
9.40 The Met's press office starts to receive reports of explosions at King's Cross, Russell Square, Edgware Road and Liverpool Street, along with suggestions of derailments and power surges on the Tube network.
9.45 The Met's control room advises the press team that the suspected explosions have generated at least 800 casualties and every London hospital has been put on alert.
9.46 A Sky News helicopter hovers over Aldgate, broadcasting live footage of Tube passengers streaming out of the station.
9.47 A No 30 bus explodes in Tavistock Square. The
bomb is witnessed by Sky News producer Bob Mills, who immediately phones through a live report. It is also heard by the Met's PR team at Scotland Yard.
10.00 Mobile phone networks prioritise emergency service calls.
10.10 The Met issues its second statement, saying that police are responding to reports of multiple incidents.
10.15 The Gold group's crisis plan for a
multi-site incident calls for the setting
up of a centrally located media centre. The Queen Elizabeth II centre, one of a few sites identified in the
plan as suitable, is contacted and found to be free.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister takes over arrangements.
11.00 The Cabinet Office opens the News
Co-ordination Centre, a cross-government press office, to handle enquiries.
11.05 TfL logs 200 bids for interviews.
11.10 London's mobile phone network collapses through
volume of traffic.
11.15 Webb takes commissioner Sir Ian Blair to Millbank to give
a televised press conference about the response to the bombs.
12.00 The Met updates the media that there were four explosions, rather than the six that have been reported.
12.25 Media are told that they can broadcast footage from traffic cameras, usually used only for traffic reports, as long as they exercise sensitivity over images.
1.00 The Queen Elizabeth II media centre opens.
First afternoon editions of the Evening Standard hit
3.00 Joint emergency services and TfL press conference at the
3.50 Forensic examinations of the scenes allow the Met to confirm to journalists that terrorists are responsible.
THE BMA'S RESPONSE
Linda Millington, head of media relations at the British Medical Association, was in Bristol at a conference on 7 July. She had been trying to contact colleagues in the association's head office on Tavistock Square that morning, finding it strange that she could not get through. Shortly after 10am she received a call from Sky News telling her that there had been an explosion on a bus in front of the BMA's office. Coupled with the explosions on the Underground, she realised this was a major incident and set about putting crisis plans into action.
The immediate problem was that with BMA staff evacuated from the building, journalists could only get hold of Millington and one other staff member working from home. When the mobile phone system collapsed during the morning, even those contacts were lost. 'That was crippling,' says Millington. 'But it was something that could not have been planned for.'
Journalists were keen to make contact because the BMA's role in the Tavistock Square incident was not limited to its proximity to the bus bomb. Up to 50 doctors, who had been in meetings at the office that morning, were performing first aid on casualties. 'We had a huge number of requests for interviews,' reveals Millington. Once the last casualty had been despatched to hospital at 1pm, Millington began arrangements for 12 doctors to talk to the media.
For the next 24 hours, these doctors received what Millington describes as 'blanket coverage', and she called a halt to the interviews. For the next ten days, the six-strong press team – now working from a small office because the Tavistock Square building was designated a crime scene – continued to take many media calls. A pool system for journalists was also arranged to cover the 21 July memorial service in the BMA's courtyard.
FOREIGN MEDIA MUSCLE IN
'It's hard to believe people would do that.' It is a comment that is not inappropriate when talking about 7 July. But this was a reference to an Australian news crew that Royal London Hospital PROs had to forcibly restrain from wards.
It was not the only source of trouble from foreign media. TfL director of group media Paul Mylrea ended up calling the Foreign Press Association to complain about the overzealous approach of an American film crew trying to get onto a platform at one of the bombed stations. 'There are strict rules for filming on the Underground that any domestic broadcaster would be aware of,' says Mylrea. 'In that situation it was doubly inappropriate.'
The Met had a tussle with foreign media on 29 July during arrests in west London. Domestic broadcasters had sent crews to the scene at midday, which the Met allowed to keep filming as long as they delayed broadcast until after the operation had ceased to be covert.
But American broadcasters, conscious of the potential for a live feed to the US breakfast shows, took much more convincing to honour the agreement. 'American crews work in a very different environment – they are used to being able to get into crime scenes,' says Chris Webb, the Met's deputy director of public affairs.
Carol McCall, head of security, intelligence and resilience within the Cabinet Office's communications team, also encountered this problem. Her team received requests for assistance from PR people at the bomb sites – they were struggling to deal with insistent foreign media.
McCall is keen to establish links with foreign media in a similar way to the Media Emergency Forums set up following 9/11 – regular meetings held with domestic media to plan the response to major incidents.
7 JULY IN NUMBERS
16 Press statements issued by TfL's media team in the 24 hours following the bombs.
60 Journalists outside the Royal London Hospital.
270 Interviews conducted by TfL staff over the 24 hours after the bombings.
800 Daily calls to the Met's press team over the ten days after 7 July (seven times the usual volume of media enquiries).
1,500 Calls to the Met's press team on 7 July (TfL received a similar quantity).
95,000 Hits to the press section of the TfL website in the 24 hours after the bombs.