Here’s a top tip in case you are ever interviewed by Richard Stokoe: he’s going to ask you to explain what “news” is. Just to help you I asked him for some hints: he says news has qualities like “sex, comedy, intrigue or drama”. He likes news.
I remember him as an energetic and effective Head of News at the Local Government Association but now he is Head of Communications at London Fire Brigade. The Brigade is, by some measures, the largest fire service in the world. Or, to avoid a fight with colleagues at FDNY, perhaps it might be safest to say one of the largest in the world. Richard is still responsible for a news operation as well as web, design, and a whole host of other comms functions.
I wanted to talk to Richard about how LFB approaches social media because they seem to me to be doing something quite different to other responders. Especially on twitter.
“I don’t like social media”
“but it is now an essential tool”.
His team really started to use the tool following an incident in July 2010 when some ducting in a restaurant in Liverpool Street Station caught fire. Liverpool St is a busy commuter hub with easy access to the City and the fire caught late in the evening when plenty of people were heading to their trains following a few after-work pints.
When a couple of thousand people were evacuated shed loads of big red engines appeared outside many people took to twitter with wild speculation. LFB’s media team started to get calls from journalists
“We explained that it was a fire in some ducting”
“and they explained that they knew it was a bomb. Twitter was telling them so. We had to embrace social media, especially twitter. We use it now as a tool to make sure that journalists, stakeholders and the general public are kept informed. Our stream is often quite dull and when the Brigade is at a steady state it just ticks along.”
The twitter feed is run by LFB media officers. They can see the Brigade incident reporting system. The control centre will page the duty comms officer when a significant incident occurs but the media team will also flag up smaller incidents which are likely to excite interest online. It is this news sense that makes the LFB twitter stream quite distinctive.
The LFB has had its share of major incidents since opening up corporate social media streams. In the riots and in a large fire at White City they used twitter to give people accurate, live information and to address people’s concerns with accurate information.
“In January there was a large fire in Shepherds Bush. Often in a major fire we will ask the Metropolitan Police Helicopter to send pictures of the fire ground to our senior officers at HQ but weather conditions kept the helicopter on the ground. We asked for members of the public to submit photos of the incident and said we would put the best ones on our facebook page. This did provide a useful intelligence feed. It’s a tactic we may use again”.
LFB spent several months thinking about how they were going to make use of social media.
“It’s not about likers and followers”
“it’s about stopping fires”. In fact the LFB facebook page is specifically tasked to reduce accidental fires caused by people in the G & N mosiac groups. “You can’t patronise these people. You have to be cunning.”
So where is all this going?
“The future scares me”
“The resource intensity of this platform scares me. It is a two-way, constant medium. Since requests online are covered by the Freedom of the Information Act you have a legal obligation to monitor and respond online. In a time of cuts and reducing resources this is a real challenge”.
“When I was at the LGA”
“You might be dealing with a story until 10 or 11 at night but then you could grab a few hours sleep until the Today programme started up at 4 or 5 in the morning. Social media never sleeps. My comms team might get paged at 2 in the morning and have to work right through.”
“This is the biggest change in communications for a generation. Senior managers in emergency services operate a command and control structure. We can no longer apply that model to communications. We need to help senior managers understand how this stuff changes things for them”.
I asked Richard which other agencies he thought were using social media well. He cited Brighton Council and Greater Manchester Police. Though he did leave me with one final thought.
“Councils are crap at this. We’re all crap at this”.