Is there a crisis of confidence at the heart of UK police communication?

Is there a crisis of confidence at the heart of UK police communication?

Twice this year, (and we're only halfway through), we’ve seen major incidents involving the police lead to criticism from sections of the media, politicians and the public over how forces handle information, early on in an investigation.

The deaths of two young people in the Bournemouth beach tragedy has led to wild speculation and the media trying to piece together what exactly happened. Five days on, there was still no formal clarity from Dorset Police on the general circumstances around the tragic events.

Understandably, the Dorset Police and Crime Commissioner defended the position of the police, given the multi-agency nature of the incident involving RNLI, coastguard, council, Marine Accident Investigation Branch and the coroner. However, it is pretty standard for police to lead communications in these circumstances, but such was the level of speculation on social by the weekend, that it forced the hand of Dorset Police to react and rule out those misinformed possibilities. Ending up on the back-foot of a major story, having to react to outside information is never a good position to be in and the optics give the impression you’ve lost control of the narrative.

Speaking to BBC Radio on Monday 6th June, Tobias Ellwood, MP for Bournemouth East, said the void of information might be an issue: “…the limited information released … was not followed up with a simple summary allowing visitors and residents to place into context the scale of this major incident. This would’ve allowed parents to assess if it was safe to return to the beach. Instead, in the absence of clarity, it led to wild speculation on social media about jet ski accidents, jumping from the pier… and it forced the police to come out with another statement, not clarifying, but ruling out some of these possibilities.”

Are the police right to maintain a policy of holding back, or in a world of social media and AI generated fake news, do police force leaders and communicators need to reassess how they improve the flow and speed of information? As Ellwood asserted, it's that information which is needed by the public to restore trust in being able to go about their usual business. Without it, we are all left floundering.

What we know about crisis communication practise tells us simply that if organisations don’t get out in front of a story speedily, with simple, effective information about what they DO know, the void will be filled with misinformation. There’s even a quote from more than sixty years ago to that effect from Naval Historian, C. Northcote Parkinson.

As in previous situations, would it have hurt the police to get in early and confirm the general circumstances around the incident, to rule out the wilder rumours and clarify the theories or lines of enquiry they ARE taking, i.e., undertow, rip tides or boat wakes?

It has to be better than the fake news being perpetuated online, partly caused by a lack of credible information from official sources. It has been problem of their own making, a hole from which police invariably have to find a way of digging themselves out.

Other questions asked by journalists have been whether the police are too cautious, especially in the light of high profile issues with The Met in recent years. Real reputational damage in trust has been done nationally. So a trustworthy, reliable flow of information is vital. But timing is key. Go too soon and the police might be vilified for speculating, move too late and we have the rumour-mill run riot.

Tobias Ellwood added: “Nobody would want to prejudice the investigation, but if the absence of a comprehensive statement becomes standard, speaking on a wider security level, those who wish us harm can leverage the void by misleading messaging and sow social discord, simply because of the advance of social media in our lives.”

In a statement not issued until late Sunday night, (according to the PCC), Dorset Police said; 'The police investigation is looking at all circumstances of the incident including weather, wind conditions and the state of the water at the time. As there was a pleasure boat in the area of water, this is just one of several lines of enquiry.' 

Is there any good reason why this broad-brush, basic information could not have been revealed before the weekend? I suspect a lot of nerves and a lack of confidence in the communication function.

Ellwood, a former soldier, now MP and security spokesman, has a point. There have been warnings about what AI can achieve almost instantly in creating fake news and misrepresentation.

David Sidwick, PCC, confirmed there needs to a review of communication practices in the light of the tragedy, not least to give accurate information to the families of those killed and injured. The mother of 12 year old Sunnah Khan complained to a newspaper that they were not receiving clear information from the police on the lines of investigation.

At the start of the year, in another tragic case of missing Nicola Bulley, by a river in Lancashire, speculation circulated until the police were in a media whirlwind of criticism and rebukes for the way they handled the crisis, especially for the way officers also chose to reveal personal private details about Ms Bulley.  

Perhaps the College of Policing can offer guidance or some comms masterclasses for the very specific way police forces have to handle delicate information at difficult and strategic points. It’s no easy task with public expectation, families needing answers and a media clamouring to provide accurate, up-to-date information.

A willingness by more forces to be as open and as transparent from the get-go would be a start. They can’t hide behind the ‘complex multi-agency operation’ veil each time. AI and social media will only continue to make fake news a faster proposition and while police forces need ever smarter, technological ways to tackle criminals, they're going to need to be more adept at rapid, front-footed communication during incidents too.

Article Author: Dave Mason

Dave is Mentor Media Training's Managing Director. He is a CIPR Accredited Practitioner and regularly trains for the PR industry institute. His extensive career in broadcasting spans 30 years across radio and television. He has coached executives from major public and private sector organisations, as well as the UK Armed Forces/NATO, around the world for the past decade. Dave is respected for his inspiring training, which is supportive and concentrates on fast learning development. A founding presenter and shareholder of Somerset’s Orchard FM, he went on to work extensively in commercial radio around the UK, as well as BBC News, where he was a Correspondent at BBC Radio 5 Live and Radio 1 Newsbeat. Dave has been a TV presenter, reporter and producer at ITN, GMTV, (ITV Breakfast), ITV News Westcountry and HTV West. He was one of GMTV’s senior producers for a decade, covering major international, domestic, political and entertainment stories. His roles have included senior news producing and planning, undercover investigations, war reporting and features production. Dave still broadcasts as a crisis communications pundit on Talk TV / Radio, BBC Radio and is a visiting lecturer at several universities. He is a non-executive Trustee of community station Radio Bath and the author of 'Handling the Media In Good Times & Bad'.