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Planning for a “social” G20: Toronto Police Services

Police guard Legislature Building, Queens ParkThe June 2010 Group of 20 (G20) summit in Toronto did not go altogether differently from G20 summits in other cities, notably London and Pittsburgh – with one exception: in Toronto, police used social media to a level not previously seen.

Central to Toronto Police Services’ success: careful planning and execution before, during, and even after the summit. Cops 2.0 authors Laura Madison and Christa Miller talked with three people heavily involved in these activities – Marco Battilana, Constable Wendy Drummond, and Sgt. Tim Burrows.

Planning: People

During the G20, the Public Information Unit (PIU)‘s normal approach to communication – one Burrows calls “multi-pronged,” involving both internal and external public relations – changed.

“A multi member team made up of representatives from the Integrated Security Unit (ISU) Partners and many police services across Ontario formed the information team,” says Burrows. “We all worked together across mainstream and social media venues to bring up to date information to all members of our communities.”

The TPS officers’ roles did not change by much. Although all can use social media in the course of their duties, only two – Burrows and Constable Scott Mills – focus their energy on its use. (Burrows, who works with the Traffic Services Unit, describes his role as “parallel” to the PIU.)

“Scott Mills has been identified as the Social Media Officer for the Service and he works in the PIU offices with the other Media Relations and Public Information Officers,” Burrows says. During the G20, Burrows and Mills were assigned social media tasks, each officer working a 12-hour shift so that the TPS could provide 24-hour coverage and monitoring of social media platforms.

Likewise, the other officers generally stuck with their usual tasks. For example, Drummond says her role as media relations officer makes her more hands-on: “responsible for liaising with the media on a daily basis, providing updates on current investigations, and creating public safety alerts to ensure the public is armed with information to which they can adjust their own actions and decisions.”

But because the TPS was part of a much larger ISU, these roles still needed the guidance of someone skilled in directing large-scale public communications efforts. That fell to Marco Battilana, a web communication strategist with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) E Division. In that role for about two years, Battilana had been called to Vancouver to assist the ISU in charge of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Overseer of both internet and intranet environments, he had developed the V2010 ISU website and social media presences from scratch, maintained the intranet site, and monitored and reported on each environment’s analytics, along with other duties. These duties were similar to what he does for the RCMP E Division, where he also trains media relations officers on content management.

The experience led to his being called on for the Toronto ISU. “With V2010 ISU, I already had an idea of what types of social media personas there would be: Supportive Government Partners, Anti-Establishment, enthusiasts, media, etc.

“Even before 2010, I had already been monitoring Beijing 2008’s social media efforts and was formulating how to improve. Having an idea of the different personas definitely helped me with planning my G8 / G20 experience and how the G8 / G20 ISU Public Affairs Communications Team (PACT) could have a positive influence for all involved.”

Battilana’s role, then, was not so much one of authority as one of guidance. “We all did the same social media monitoring when it came to the duties at the time,” he explains. “I merely gave my suggestions based on my expertise and experience.

“The other members had already established the social media monitoring and it was working very well. I simply wanted to take it one step further and be truly interactive with the public: [to achieve] two-way communication between the G8 / G20 ISU and the public and/or media.

“Scott and Tim were a great asset as they had already been living and breathing this. Their Twitter and Facebook accounts were already doing what I thought the G8 / G20 ISU should be doing, so it simply solidified the success of what was to come.”

Planning: The Event

College Street ProtestThe G20 was, perhaps not coincidentally, planned to immediately follow the G8 summit. However, says Drummond, while the city had plenty of time to plan for the G8, police were only notified of the G20 plans in February 2010.

“With not as much time to prepare as there was for the G8, planning went into full speed ahead,” she says. “Communications was key, and working with the communities that were going to be affected directly as a result of their proximity to the Metro Convention Centre, was paramount.

Despite TPS’ documented success with social media use, the ISU had little to draw on in terms of other G20 responders’ experiences. Nevertheless, says Drummond, “We knew that we were going to have to reach thousands of people to deliver several messages prior to and during the summits, and that is where social media assisted our Public Affairs Communications Team.”

This, she adds, ended up being one of the few things about back-to-back summits that was not costly and challenging. “Through the use of social media, we were able to communicate effectively out of one location, and social media, as you know, can be done anywhere, at anytime, reaching a large number of people, all at once.”

Exercises are important to planning for emergency or other critical situations. Historically, they include traditional media (including misinformation) and other elements that make for a scenario that is as accurate as possible.

However, while G20 exercises mentioned social media, practical exercises were not included. “This is a type of training that could be used to effectively answer questions to unforeseen problems and train officers to recognize the best practices to dealing with issues that could come up during real events,” Burrows acknowledges.

On the other hand, says Drummond, many elements of communication during the G20 were unexpected. “Being able to respond to questions and inform people as to what to expect is a lot different then dealing with public reaction and criticism,” she explains.

“Some of the messaging that we expected to be an issue with the public was not, and other issues felt to be moot became daily topics! Such as the removal of small trees to allow for the helicopter to land.”

Battilana, at the time still involved with the V2010, could not directly participate in the pre-event planning. Still, he says, “The PACT communication plan initially mirrored the V2010 ISU social media plan. When I arrived, I made some suggestions for monitoring. Tweetdeck was currently being used by the social media team, which worked. I suggested also using Hootsuite as a primary monitoring tool, which we did with great success. Facebook to Twitter was also utilized.”

While the use of these tools was so successful that Battilana says he would continue in the same vein, he cautions against overdependence on them. “What’s more important is keep on top of what tools are being used at the time. Who knows what will be around in five years. The key is to stay aware.”

Addressing violence and public anxiety

Police LineProtestor violence in other cities meant that in Toronto, messaging would have to take high emotions into account. “Social media was known to have been in use by protestors, both peaceful and not in previous summits,” says Burrows, “so its use was recognized as a valuable communication tool from the very beginning. [We used it] to monitor protest movements, inform and educate the public and to answer concerns and questions.”

One key example: “A couple of weeks prior to the G20, the ISU held a Technical Briefing, putting on display the many specialized units and equipment that was expected to be used, including the controversial LRAD [Long Range Acoustic Device],” says Drummond.

“This briefing was very beneficial as it somewhat set the stage for what people could expect to see, and really, be able to get their heads around the fact that there was gong to be such a large increase of police presence on the streets of Toronto.”

Burrows adds: “The information we gave to the public about the LRAD was designed to show how it is a very effective communication tool in times of mass gatherings where clear communication is so important.”

“This generated much discussion and talk on social media sites,” says Drummond. “We posted a lot of video explaining the duties and responsibilities of the different units, and the function of LRAD. This also in turn allowed the public to express their concerns and distrust in the use of the LRAD.”

Which, says Burrows, there was plenty of. “The public was very concerned about the use of the LRAD from what they saw at the Pittsburgh G20 summit. The ISU was intent on letting the public know that we were going to use it for communication and not as a weapon. Our plans never varied and as people understood the use of the tool and how the ISU was to use it, the fear was truly unfounded.”

Ultimately, says Drummond, planning for social media use need not be complicated. “As a law enforcement agency we fall within the realm of public safety and are required to abide by certain guidelines and requirements, but the forum in which the information is delivered is unique and needs to be specific to address individual audiences in order to maximize the effectiveness of the communications,” she explains.

For example, Battilana adds, says Police Services’ emphasis on two-way social media communication was much more developed than it had been for V2010. “The response was something that I wanted to see happen just like how the PACT would release media lines,” he explains. “We’d have the same vetting, approval and release, except not as verbose. Really though, it all comes down to effective communication. And that’s what the PACT was wanting to achieve with SM, and I believe that is what we all did.”

Social Media During the G20

Riot cops marching towards Queen St WestSocial tools were not only valuable as communications modes. They also proved critical for intelligence-gathering and investigations. “Being able to provide information confidentially to police through different social media sites has increased the amount of tips received,” says Drummond.

“On the flip side to that, people have a tendency to have tunnel vision when posting things on sites, feeling faceless and untraceable. It is with those postings that we were able to use our talent and use the information posted to our advantage. It allowed our officers to monitor public sites that protestors were using to share information.”

Battilana adds, “The tips that came in before and during [the summits] were hit or miss. Some were factual and some were not. We still managed to follow up on all the information we received.

“It definitely became more of a challenge for the PACT the closer to the summit we got. As the summit was more on the public’s mind, we’d end up with more and more social media activity. Hence, we really had to focus on disseminating the incoming information.”

How physical locations impacted communication

Two complicating factors: first, PACT staff were not all located in Toronto; they were also posted in the Ontario cities of Barrie and Huntsville. Second, Drummond notes that with regard to Huntsville and Toronto particularly, communications had to take into account very different demographics.

“Toronto, being a very urban setting, the majority of the population is tech savvy and the use of social media is much more prevalent,” she explains. “Huntsville, however, is a smaller town, where the population is older and reliant on traditional forms of media such as TV, radio and print.”

To deal with such disparate modes of communication, police went slightly lower tech: the telephone. “We had two phone numbers, one for the media and one for the public,” says Drummond. These calls came into Toronto, where the phones were manned 24 hours. “The responses were coordinated with PACT members in Barrie to maintain continuity with responses given by Toronto media officers and those posted in Huntsville.”

Burrows was one of the officers posted to Toronto. “The call volume was extremely heavy during the summits but during the G20 in particular,” he says. “While maintaining the continuity with a mass team will always be a challenge, our call centre supervisors held regular briefings and we were in constant contact with the ISU communications team leadership to ensure that we were all on the same page at all times.”

Managing communications breakdowns

Man on the StreetDrummond says the most frustrating part of her experience involved breakdowns in communication. “Being in a position were you speak on behalf of the ISU is one that comes with the expectation of perfection, which is far from ever happening,” she explains. “No matter how you deliver some information, it will always be scrutinized and twisted.

“The amount to which you are able to control and rectify this, and continue to deliver the message that you want to be heard, is the challenge. Something that I learned very quickly in all of the G20 was how fast people post information, regardless of whether it had been verified or not. You may end up spending a lot of time correcting such postings!”

Roundtable discussions ensured message accuracy, and also helped communicators anticipate questions “to minimize the surprise moments,” says Burrows. “Accuracy always has to win out over immediacy. There is no problem verifying what live media may be showing. It’s obvious by the pictures what is happening.

“The danger is when the media or the public leads the information stream and looks for verification on their perspective, as opposed to deterring the facts and providing the most accurate information from the voices of authority.”

Drummond says that this is an opportunity for an aspect of the job that is most rewarding: “Being misquoted or having your comments be taken out of context is a great place for social media to step in. When you have written something and posted it publicly reduced the ability to alter your message.”

The worth of social media during large-scale events

G20 RIOTS SAT 26 JUNE 2010Battilana agrees. “In my opinion, I think the PACT definitely achieved our objective of effective communications, in relation to a social media perspective. As more news agencies started to continuously follow us via social media as the summit drew near, we were able to have more of an influence on what the media were portraying.

“An example being people tweeting that the security fence was breached at a specific location, which then showed up on a certain news channel. Once we looked up the location referenced in the tweet, we realized that the location didn’t even have a security fence present. So, we tweeted that there was no fence breach occurring, as there was no fence at that location, and the news updated their report.”

This, Battilana adds, typifies how social media proved its worth. “I’ve seen people try to quantify the exact return on investment of social media when planning, and I believe this is why some people don’t believe in its influence,” he says.

“If we could achieve these types of results in regards to the G8 /G20 and what the mainstream media was reporting on in the matter of a week, just imagine what continued success we could have in the future. All it takes is someone with the courage and vision to see the true benefits of social media and to have the right people execute the plan accordingly.”

Drummond agrees. “Having a well established following, experienced and knowledgeable communicators, and a Service that recognizes the value in social media and its importance was key to the success of social media during the summits of 2010,” she says.

“Without the experience and following that both Tim and Scott have as figures in law enforcement, I don’t think we would have been as successful in reaching so many people and engaging them in dialogue or just making people aware of preparations and planning.”

To these thoughts adds Burrows: “One important point to remember is that there will always be members of society that don’t agree with anything that law enforcement does. That becomes intensified and multiplied with political events.

“It is paramount to recognize that you will never be able to appease everyone. The difference between five years ago and today is that social media have made it possible for those people to gather together on line and increase their voice and their position. Law enforcement must do the same, work together, increase our voice and always present the truth with accuracy and transparency.”

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