Communicating protest: Some notes on police PR tactics – Part 1

First and foremost I want to set these blog posts into some context.

I posted previously about The Met's use of staged or managed events at the second student demo as part of its communications strategy and suggetsed I might write a follow-up post to examine some of the Met's more conventional PR tactics to shape media coverage and public opinion.

Also, as part of my PhD I'm planning on using my blog as a way of keeping notes and sharing thoughts that will come in useful as my research progresses. These posts are part of that iterative process. 

In addition to the above, these posts will also hopefully serve as a handy – if modest and incomplete – reference guide for journalists to help them undertand and decode some of the communications tactics employed by the Met and thus potentially improve the depth of questioning and breadth of coverage.

Part 1 – How 'framing' media stories is used for effective political policing

In US academic, Robert Entman's, book on the way issues or stories are 'framed' (that is how relevant information is gathered and edited into 'news') by the media he asserts that by establishing the terms of a potential story, strategic actors (in our case, the Met) can command and control the way the subsequent news is perceived and – more importantly – how it continues to influence future stories.

Specifically, in Projections of Power (2004) he outlines what Curran (2002) calls the "definitional power" of the media:

"A dominant frame [i.e an official way of interpreting information] in early news coverage of an event can acticat and sprad congruinet thoughts and feelings in individuals' knowledge […] that guides responses to all future reports. First impressions may be difficult to dislodge." p.7 [my emphasis]

This theory can be used to explain the PR tactics adopted by the Met even before a demonstration takes place who you will often find issuing a briefing to 'define' the direction of the media narrative.

This happened ahead of the most recent student demonstration on 9th December where Commander Bob Broadhurst, the head of the Met's public order branch, told media they were expecting the student demonstration to be violent.

It also happened ahead of the 2009 G20 protests in London when weeks before planned demos Superintendent David Hartshorn, who then headed the Met's public order branch, exclusively told The Guardian the Met was: "preparing for a "summer of rage" as victims of the economic downturn take to the streets to demonstrate against financial institutions."

With hindsight these examples offer a useful opportunity to interpret the way they potentially shaped public perception of events.

Take the recent student demo as our first case study: telling the media they were execting violence firstly activates in the public's mind that the demonstration is goin to be violent. Whether it ever turns out to be or not this perception and mindet towards demonstrators is established. Secondly, it acts to legitimise police violence because, as the Met has aldready confirmed in advance, it was expecting violence so any brutality on its part must be a response.

This technique neatly reverses cause an effect of violent public order situations and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Met.

The ' helped significantly by the news management technique of 'embedding' journalists within forces to help ensure the event is interpreted from a specific perspective – despite the best aims of 'objective' reporting.

Another 'set piece' in the police's PR toolkit to help 'frame' news from within protests or public order situations is the use – and reporting – of injuries.  

**Before I go any further, please note: I am not excusing or valorising any kind of violent behaviour or resultant injury to anyone. I am trying to explore and explian how injuries that happen within tense situations can be used to establish a particular perception in the media.**

The reporting of injuries can be used both qualitatively to reinforce the notion of 'violent demonstrators' and 'police as victims' and also quantitively to show how much of a battle the police won/lost (depending on the public's wider perceptions post-event).

As an example of the first tactic see this quote from a police spokesperson from Nottinghamshire police during the demonstration at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in 2009:

"Throughout the day officers have been assaulted but police remain in control of the site. We have one officer who sustained head injuries at the protest. He was airlifted to Derbyshire Royal Infirmary where he is being treated. His wife has been made aware but we have no update on his condition.

"One protester also received treatment on site by police officers and was taken away by ambulance. His condition is unknown."

It would later transpire that the office didn't sustain a head injury – which, of course, was good news.

What is noticable is the formal and melodramatic reporting for the injured police officer (e.g. "his wife has been informed") that's clearly missing from comments about the injured protester – along with a more complete total of injured protestors which was much higher than 'one'.

Now, this may seem rather extreme: exploiting injuries to shape media covergae, but wider context and examples will hopefully illustrate the point further.

The injured officer airlifted to hospital was actually treated by a medic that was protesting on the day. From tweets at the time and emails I've seen subsequently it would appear that at the time the officer was being treated it was apparent that he was unlikely to be suffering from head injuries, as the hospital or police later confirmed.

The Guardian – as I understand it – was party to the development in the story, but of course by then it was old news and the public's perception had been set.

A further – and by now, infamous – example of the quantitative use of police injuries in PR is Kingsnorth Climate Camp.

During the 2008 Climate Camp gathering police used extreme measures to intimidate protestors, such as sleep deprivation and excessive stop and search activity. In addition, police revealed to the media and Parliament that a total of 70 officers had been injured during the police operation.

It wasn't until a FoI request from the Liberal Democrats that it became apparent not a single injury was sustained from protestors; rather records showed injujuries were mostly toothache, diarrhoea, cut fingers and "possible bee stings".

I won't labour the point, but you get the idea that by the time the reality of the situation has unravelled it's old news and the public perception has been crystalised.

For a good overview of examples of this, specifically related to climate change and climate justice campaigning, see Kevin Smith's post for the Guardian's CiF blog.

The next post in this series will look at post-demonstration tactics, the use of language and perhaps look at some of the additional reasons for the effectiveness of police PR and media management, e.g. the formalised news production processes and cultural values of the media.



Curran, J. (2002). Media & Power. Routledge.

Entman, R. (2004). Projections of Power. University of Chicago Press.

Student protests, communication power and undercover police

I’ve been burying my head in books of late trying to map out my first PhD chapter. This has meant some fairly extensive reading around the subject of power.

It’s fair to say that most scholars agree that power can be exerted through two complementary mechanics: violence (i.e. physical force) and discourse/communication (i.e. coercion, influence, etc).

So it was interesting to be on Whitehall last Wednesday during the student demo and to witness both mechanics in operation.

[Slideshow courtesy of ashleydmiddleton on Flickr]

I won’t major on the resultant media coverage (which, is something that could be discussed extensively in another post) but suffice to say that hindsight, the traditional media’s coverage was fairly standard reporting utilising the atypcial frames wheeled out for public disorder, (e.g. any violence is always the work of a “minority”; a false dichotomy is established between legitimate, peaceful protest and illegitimate, violent protest, largely unquestioning of police facts, press releases, etc – although to be fair, the latter is partly a problem with the formalised news production processes, than, say, undue influence).

But two things struck me as worth blogging about.

Firstly, I wanted to write down a personal encounter that got me thinking about the possible use of strategic policing tactics that were potentially used to manipulate the outcome of events and the subsequent media representation of the day.

Shortly after the kettle formed – and it was inevitable from the minute the march arrived at Parliament Square that it would be kettled – I was stood behind the police line when I witnessed a short man dressed in black, with a black hat (or possbly balaclava pulled up onto his head) be ushered through the police line after flashing something small and white resembling an ID card from a retractable lanyard at his waist.

He then disappeared between several police vans parked near the police line.

Now far be it from me to suggest that the police were using the same tactics as were used during the G20 protests when it was revealed that undercover or plain clothes police were being used as agents provocateurs, but the similarities between this scenario and the G20 struck me as a possibility.

Of course, it is apparently standard procedure to sue undercover police to gather intelligence at demonstrations but it would interesting to scour the footage of the first people to start trashing the controversial police van, allegedly planted as bait for riot porn, to see whether the same person was involved.

The second thing worth mentioning is that while a lot of people present on Wednesday were confident the van *had* been left as bait (similar tactics were possibly used during the already mentioned G20 protests when the only building left unprotected by horading was a branch of RBS, then the UK’s most hated bank) most presumed that this angle to the story would not make mainstream news reports.

But in that assumption they were only half right. While the story didn’t make any main bulletin,  Sky News’ Frontline blog comes right out and asks the question whether the van was intentionally planted.

What’s interesting to me is that here is a classic example of professional journalists using informal, social media platforms to publish stories not deemed sufficiently news-worthy to make the headlines – or at least mainstream headlines. Not only that, but this story actually challenges the dominant media narrative based on ‘official’ reporting of events.

So, what are the conclusions and implications here? I’m not entirely sure really. But it’s worth considering the argument that the police don’t just use communications strategies to best report what’s happening, but rather stage-manage events to shape the communcitive outcome.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that while big new outlets remain dominant in shaping the agenda, social media not only provides (potentially mutiple) counter-arguments it seems that this counter-voice can also come from within media corporations.

I guess this latter point seems like common sense, but it’s always nice to spot and note a case study.

Activism, Clicktivism and the limits of social media in achieving social change

Last month, Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in The New Yorker arguing that social media was preventing real social change taking place by encouraging what he termed 'clicktivism' – a form of engagement and action based on weak social ties, rather than real-life activism based on strong ties.

Of course, Gladwell’s piece was mostly a straw-man argument concocted to earn him some column inches and boost his profile between book launches. And of course it generated a number of impassioned rebuttals from the social movement and NGO communities.

However, while Gladwell was wrong on most counts, the past week has started to reveal the faultlines within social media and activism.

Drawing on the fall-out from the student demonstrations in central London last week (for those wanting a back-story, see the LRB’s fantasic essay on why the government's cuts are driven by ideology rather than economic necessity) we can argubly see clear limitations to the power of social networking and social change.

First of all, there was zero mobile phone signal for many students during the march which meant people were unable to live-tweet, live-blog or upload images and video in real-time. I’m not sure if there was an explanation for the outage, but it had the same effect regardless: people were unable to live-report and co-ordinate actions online from the heart of the demonstration.

And I didn’t see the Home Office intervening and encouraging mobile networks to fix any problems to cope with increased demand as with the 'Iranian Twitter revolution'.

Secondly, the pitfalls of being a digital native became all to clear to students involved in potentially criminal activity whose actions were uplaoded to social networking sites and shared with the world – especially the media who had a field day harvesting and publishing photography and video of students engaged in direct action.The BBC reports in lurid – and somewhat pointless – detail about this while the Telegraph set up a distasteful 'shop-a-student' section [No link, sorry. Refuse to]. As this was the first action for a lot of students, many failed to ‘mask up’ or conceal their identity.

Thirdly, once the media witch-hunt began and the police started rounding up suspects support and solidarity networks sprang to life via blogs and Twitter offering advice for people involved in the demo as well as  campaigning to raise funds for those facing charges.

However it would seem that the police are pretty good at spotting these websites – largely hosted on corporate blogging platforms or hosting providers – and pressuring the provider to pull the entire site. The most high profile example to date has been Fitwatch, a blog dedicated to reporting on the police Forward Intelligence Teams who take photos of people suspected of being linked to all manner of lawful protests and adding their profiles to a huge database.

Fitwatch (re)posted advice (widely available on the web) providing guidance on how to deal with the fall-out of the demo which resulted in the entire site being removed by its host, Just Host – purely on the say so of an acting detective inspector, Will Hodgeson, from the Met Police's CO11 section.

As of tonight Fitwatch is still offline, despite the Guardian taking up their case.

So, while Gladwell argued that the "revolution won't be tweeted", he sadly might be closer to the truth then he intended – and definitely more than social change campaigners hope he is.