Southwark Council: responding to the London Bridge and Borough Market terror attacks

On 3 June 2017 London Bridge and Borough Market were targeted by a devastating terrorist attack which left eight people dead and 48 seriously injured. With the emergency services leading the initial response, Southwark Council had the vital job of keeping residents, councillors and the wider community informed, reassured and supported to deal with the tragedy. Louise Neilan, Head of Communications at Southwark Council, explains what they did.

Communications support

The challenge

The events of the 3 June were among the most challenging the council has ever faced. Although the live incident lasted just 15 minutes, the devastation created during that time was horrifying. The challenge for us as an organisation was making sure that the emergency services could deal with the incident smoothly while we focused on supporting residents, businesses, visitors and other stakeholders affected by what was happening. This included everything from making sure that people who lived in the area had suitable accommodation, that accurate information was shared across our channels and that we had a clear, and sustainable plan for how we would deal with the immediate aftermath of the event and as the area attempted to get back to normal.

The solution

We immediately mobilised our emergency plan and set up our Borough Emergency Control Centre, but we let the police get on with their job. As an organisation we focused on practical support for residents and visitors – setting up a rest centre for people who couldn’t get home and directing people to the Met Police’s Twitter feed for the most up-to-date information. We followed our emergency incident protocols which state that we will communicate the information from the emergency services as much as possible rather than creating our own updates. This helped to keep the messaging clear and consistent and reduce the chance of confusing people.

In the days that followed the 3 June we increased our proactive communications. Our Leader made a statement condemning the attack, thanking the emergency services and emphasising the resilience and unity of the borough. We shared this message across all of our channels and reiterated it throughout interviews with the local and national media.

We also deployed a number of colleagues to talk to people directly affected by the incident so that we could understand the concerns that people had and make sure that the messages we developed addressed those needs. This was supported by a number of behind the scenes meetings with businesses, partners and community groups by colleagues from across the organisation to understand what they needed from us. It’s impossible to over-state the importance of face-to-face communications in events like this, as well as the need to make the most of existing relationships with stakeholders to cascade messages and capture intelligence about the topics people need support or information on.

Over the days and weeks that followed we continued to meet with businesses, community and faith groups to provide more direct reassurance messaging and explain our more specific support for them (for example, we offered business rate relief to businesses affected by the attack). We also proactively shared details of which transport links and businesses had reopened.

Although messages about practicalities are important, it became clear that the community needed to express its grief so we worked alongside partners to develop messages that informed people about issues such as where the official vigil would be held and where they could leave flowers. We shared messages on our website, social media channels, and through our magazine about where people could get help and support to deal with the emotional trauma caused by the incident. We also hand delivered victim support cards to businesses in the area and left cards in the floral tributes to reach out to people.

When it came to the time when floral tributes and condolences messages needed to be removed, we made sure that we communicated what would be happening clearly, sensitively and in plenty of time so that people had time to process the information. We also emphasised that the messages would be preserved by our local historian and the flowers composted to plant a tree on the anniversary.

The impact

Adopting this approach to our communications ensured that everyone was clear on the role of the council in responding to this incident. In a time of crisis it can be tempting to want to communicate everything but the reality is that you do not have all the answers to the hundreds of questions that people will have. Focusing on communicating messages that mattered to the local community and were directly relevant to our day-to-day work as an organisation helped to keep information clear and ensured that we could focus our efforts and resources in the areas where we had expertise. From a purely practical point of view you don’t have the numbers of people to get involved in answering everything all at once so prioritising and knowing where to step back and let another agency take the lead was vital.

Ensuring that our messages covered both practical and emotional issues also helped us to reach different people with different needs and concerns. People have different responses and emotional triggers to incidents like this and we needed to make sure that our messages reflected both of those aspects.

Why it worked / how we’re sustaining it

Leading the recovery phase of this incident was a key part of our responsibilities as a council. Since the incident happened we have included a link to support services for people affected by the incident on the front page of our website and we continue to promote messages from our partner organisations such as our local mental health trust, victim support teams and local community groups and charities. We increased this activity in the run up to the first anniversary of the attack as milestones can affect people differently. We have also made sure that staff have access to the same information and support as our wider communities. In respect of the anniversary we have focused on sharing details of the arrangements through all our communication channels and with partners and stakeholders to make sure that people know what is happening and have the opportunity to participate.

Lessons learned

Incidents like this highlight the huge importance of making sure that you have an emergency plan in place and that you practice it to make sure it works and people understand it. There will never be a right time to think about emergency plans but it’s vital that you make time. Emergency communication plans also need to make specific mention of how you will manage social media as this is often the channel that is most vital and most in demand.

This attack also highlighted the importance of understanding your role as an organisation, making best use of your networks and asking for help. We’re a resilient sector but we are not invincible. Colleagues across local government are happy to support each other so it’s important to ask if you need extra pairs of hands to deal with challenges or enable your teams to take a break.

Want to know more?

For more information please contact Louise Neilan, Head of Communications for Southwark Council.