Social media in a crisis: Montreal student protests

Social media in a crisis: Montreal student protests

Social media has the power to move people, literally.  That’s what communicators learned at a recent IABC Ottawa professional development event featuring speaker Melissa Carroll, the person behind the Montreal Police Service’s (SPVM) Twitter account during the 2012 student protests against tuition fee increases.

Last week, about 50 PR pros crowded into the Black Tomato pub on George Street in the Byward Market at what was IABC Ottawa’s last professional development event of the season to learn about how Melissa helped SPVM avoid a full out riot by harnessing Twitter to communicate in both official languages with protesters on the streets.

“Our objective is to bring the SPVM closer to the community and our use of social media helps us do this,” said Melissa who is a graduate of the University of Laval with a degree in journalism and has been a communications officer with the SPVM since 2004. “During the demonstrations we were communicating with students and trying to answer questions in real time to quash rumours and keep things calm.”

Montreal riot police at play
Montreal riot police at play (Photo credit: scottmontreal)

In one incident, there was big demonstration with 10,000 people walking towards a major intersection, and their progress had to be stopped to keep people safe and avoid a major traffic hold up.  As police blocked the protestors, rumours of attacks and rubber bullets started. Melissa had to act quickly to avoid violence. “I used the students’ own hashtag, #ggi, and asked them to retweet our messages. I gave specific instructions…the demonstration is not over but please take the East road,” explained Melissa. “Then, we watched on the big screen as the crowd started going east.  It was calm. The demonstration went smoothly.  That was amazing.”

As a communications officer for SPVM Melissa had had no specific social media training before taking on the responsibility for the police service. In fact, she landed the role almost by default because the person who had launched the Twitter profile had left on maternity leave. No-one else on the team wanted to do it.

She said, “I read some books and articles online and looked at what specialists were saying about using social media. The first time I tweeted it took about 10 minutes.  It was stressful, because I knew I was representing a public organization.”

She confesses that not everyone in the police service believed in the use of social media at first. Many were afraid that there would not be a good reaction from the public. “They didn’t know how social media worked and were afraid of the unknown,” said Melissa. “They could not understand what the value was and I had to demonstrate it.  We were in uncharted territory.”

It turns out that Twitter was the perfect channel for the task. It was chosen for its simplicity as a communications tool. The primary use was, and remains, to get important information out to citizens quickly and as it’s needed.

SPVM uses Twitter to offer safety tips, inform of important events, share police-related news as well as to seek the public’s help in solving crimes.

Prior to the student demonstrations the SPVM Twitter profile had 10,000 followers.  Since then, followers have grown to almost 55,000 in number – second only to New York City’s Twitter feed.

During the protests the use of hashtags proved crucial. Melissa created a hashtag, #manifencours, to help identify SPVM’s tweets in the conversation. It started trending immediately.  “It surprised us that that everyone was using it,” said Melissa. “We got a great welcome on Twitter.  We received many tweets from protestors to thanking us for the neutral position we took.”

Since its launch the #manifencours hashtag has been used more than a million times. It has gone international with protesters in France and South America having used it during their demonstrations.

The key to success for SPVM was being as transparent as the law would allow.  Melissa said, “I would just say how the police had intervened and why we had done it.  I would tweet, ‘we are arresting someone for a criminal act, please let the police do their job and the protest can continue’.”

Manifestation 22 Mai 2012 Montreal
Manifestation 22 Mai 2012 Montreal (Photo credit: fatseth)

But the SPVM Twitter initiative was not without its challenges. In representing a police service, Twitter activity is bounded by laws and regulations, and the protection of confidential information is imperative.

Melissa said, “It’s not always easy because everything goes so fast.  We didn’t have the luxury of time to verify everything. You have to react to and acknowledge information and events as they happen.

“A guy tweeted a photograph of a police officer with orange tape on his hat. The tape is used to identify teams on the ground, and so I tweeted ‘it’s just to identify teams by colour’.”

But in the photo it looked like ID numbers were being hidden by tape and that rumour spread like crazy. Melissa tweeted that the police would look into this allegation and in the end it turned out to be true…some police officers were using the tape to hide their ID numbers. “We were in a PR war.  We quickly investigated then publically acknowledged it on Twitter. Then we said what we were doing about it.”

Another hurdle was getting timely internal approvals on communications messages.  The SPVM decided to shorten the normal approval process. Melissa had her boss and all necessary subject matter experts on speed dial. “I don’t have to get each tweet approved, but they do have to approve the ideas.  Management needs to have confidence in the community manager,” said Melissa. “I have never had to tweet something without the blessing of my bosses.  The chief is pretty into social media though and if the chief says he likes it…everyone has to play ball.”

Follow Melissa @SPVM.

Sherrilynne Starkie is IABC Ottawa’s vice-president of leadership development. 

Click here to find out how Thornley Fallis can help your organization embrace social media to build trust and improve relationships.

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