Exeter City Council: communications during Clarence Hotel fire

When England’s oldest hotel caught fire in 2016, Exeter city council’s communications team sprang into action, using digital channels to warn, inform and engage communities in the recovery operation. Director of Communications Jon-Paul Hedge explains what they did and how their quick thinking and use of integrated channels saw them secure the 2017 Granicus Award for most Creative Use of Digital Citizen Engagement.

Communications support

When the Clarence Hotel caught fire on 29 October 2016 we initially thought it had been contained within a few hours. It rapidly became clear however that the fire had spread and engulfed the building, presenting the council, our partners and local businesses and communities within the city centre with far greater challenges than we had initially anticipated. With little signs of the fire slowing we knew we had to act quickly to inform residents about what was happening, how the council would be working to keep the city moving, and what support would be available to residents and businesses affected by the blaze.

The solution

We turned to our digital and social media channels. Before this incident we had already invested significant time in building up our channels to increase our follower base and provide content that our audiences regularly viewed so we were confident that this would be the most effective and immediate way of reaching the widest possible number of people.

We opened up our Facebook channel and broadcast the blaze live so that people could actually see what was happening rather than us describing it through a press release or still photos which wouldn’t be able to convey the scale. Live broadcasting in this way helped us to reduce the number of calls and enquiries from journalists and residents about what was happening as we had provided a channel for them to see it in real time. We worked closed with our partners as part of the gold, silver, bronze incident command structure and as we took the lead for resident and business communication we also decided to create a closed Facebook group for businesses in the city centre, providing them with direct information on what support would be available to organisations who couldn’t open their offices due to the cordon, as well as information about where road closures would be in place, and where alternative access could be found. Providing information through this closed Facebook group also helped us to circulate information quickly – something that was especially important as the cordon arrangements kept changing. We also liaised with our partners in the chamber of trade to cascade vital information through their email channels to ensure that businesses affected by the incident had access to timely and relevant information.

We also used our digital channels to coordinate the fundraising efforts. It became clear after the first 24 hours that the fire would continue for some time and we were being asked about how residents could help. We managed to set up an online appeal within two hours which reduced the number of calls we, and other partner organisations, were receiving about how people could help

The tone of our social platforms also meant that we could promote positive, business as usual messages to our residents and visitors alongside important safety updates. We had a wedding and a Christmas market to facilitate as the incident was going on and both were able to go ahead. We were able to use our channels to showcase these successes and promote the fact that the city was still working.

Although social and digital channels were vital, we also ensured that we briefed our staff and volunteers on the barriers with the latest information so that they could update anyone who spoke to them. It’s vital that your face-to-face channels are as up to date as possible and it’s important to still use face-to-face and traditional channels to communicate with audiences as well as online platforms. Although we directed many of our media enquiries to our digital updates, we still gave seven broadcast interviews over the six days that the fire burnt, including an on camera interview by our leader on the morning it started. We also briefed our members and MPs and our senior managers on the latest key messages so that they were prepared for any questions and we had some resilience across the organisation if we needed any additional spokespeople.

The impact

The impact of this work was enormous. Our fire appeal raised £15,000. We reached 1,058,841 people through Facebook, secured 6404 shares and 11,414 live comments demonstrating just how wide ranging our social media use has been. We secured positive coverage from our local broadcasters on how the council had handled the incident, as well as positive reactions from our partners, businesses and local residents. Despite this being one of the biggest incidents we had had to deal with, we still ranked at number 1 on YouGov’s digital performance tool for October 2016.

Why it worked / how we’re sustaining it

Our approach worked because we focused on channels that we had already invested time and effort in developing. We had an audience already using those channels so we could get information out to people without trying to identify who they were at the same time. Our strong partnerships also helped as we were able to use the distribution lists and channels of partner organisations to share information, expanding our reach even further. We also made use of volunteers which boosted our resilience.

In terms of sustaining our activity, we are continuing to invest our efforts in further developing our digital channels as we now have more followers. We also shared CCTV footage of the incident six months on to show people what had happened.

Lessons learned

Make sure you prepare for an incident before one happens. Be clear on what your out of office mobile arrangements are, make sure your contacts are up to date and have a bag ready to go (complete with battery charger) ready to go. You never know who you might need to ring or when so take the time to get things ready when you have a quiet minute outside of a major incident. When one happens make sure that you are visible and put boots on the ground to reassure people. Be visible and make sure you put boots on the ground early. Don’t be afraid to involve your communities if it is safe for them to be involved. Lots of our volunteers on our barriers were local people who wanted to help and they were a hugely valuable asset, especially given we all have fewer employees than we used to have.

Want to know more?

For more information please contact Jon-Paul Hedge, Director of Communications for Exeter City Council