On November 9, 2018, Australia was rocked by an act of violence on a busy street in Melbourne. As the incident played out through live-streams on phones, computers, and televisions across the country, it became known as the Bourke Street terrorist attack.

In what was an otherwise standard Friday, social media was flooded with posts about the incident. While many were concerned over an increased police presence, gun shots, road closures, and the whereabouts of loved ones, others were quick to jump to conclusions as to what had happened. Videos and pictures of the incident quickly appeared online and so did inaccurate information.

Victoria Police made an important call that day: The force decided to use social media to its advantage.

While a terrorist attack and a brand issue couldn’t be further apart in terms of their severity, the fundamental processes for managing the two are comparable. According to Victoria Police head of reactive online communications, Mark Bayly, social media is crucial in a crisis such as the Bourke Street attack as it is the number one online consumer engagement channel.

Obviously nirvana normally has the force as the sole distributor of information at a time like this, but Bayly and his team knew that wouldn’t be the case and instead moved quickly to be the trusted source.

SEE: Social media policy (Tech Pro Research)

Timing is everything

At 16.21 AEDT on November 9, 2018, Bayly received a call informing him there was a car explosion on Bourke Street and that it was unknown if it was terrorism-related. Bayly told the Salesforce World Tour in Sydney that he needed to release a statement with urgency containing even just the smallest of details Victoria Police had at its disposal.

At 16.29 AEDT the police published a statement. Bayly said it was important to tell the community something was occurring and that the police was on top of things.

Victoria Police uses Salesforce Social Studio to organise its social media footprint. Usually, the organisation receives around 50,000 comments per week — that is, without an incident of this scale.

When a terrorism incident or category one crime is identified, Victoria Police stands up a Police Operations Centre, full of media, intelligence, strategy, safety, and tactical staff — around 70-80 people in a room working together.

“So that feed of communications from the media department … one of my team members sits up there, feeds information back down to the reactive team where we’re working and moderating Social Studio,” Bayly explained, noting he also had staff at the scene as he knew there would shortly be a press conference.

“We need to have people out there to live-stream to both Facebook and Twitter.

“18 months ago the executive command of Victoria Police would have been hesitant about having live-streaming of their media conferences — they now demand that we’re there because they know the power of that communication process.”

At 17.25 AEDT Victoria Police issued its first formal response.

At 18.04 AEDT Superintendent David Clayton held a media conference that was live-streamed to both Twitter and Facebook.

At 19.06 AEDT an exclusion zone map was published. Bayly said it was basically another point of public reassurance and direction to stay away from the area. It was shortly followed by another media conference, this time in a room with the Premier and the Chief of Police.

At around 22.00 AEDT the second — and final for the day — media release with new information was provided.

“This would be the final update for the evening, but we knew we were in for a couple of long days — it wasn’t going to stop that night,” Bayly said.

Citizen detectives and crowd-sourced intel

Bayly’s team were curating posts containing dozens of key words, not just the obvious “Bourke Street” or “terrorist”. Common themes in the comments, he said, were terrorism, bail laws, praise for Victoria Police, “police should have shot the offender sooner”, drug use, mental health, the offender known to police, anti-Islam, immigration, anti-refugees, fake news, and trolley man.

Every post on social media containing these words, and many others, were isolated by the team and pulled in as evidence.

Across the weekend, Victoria Police had a total of 14 Facebook posts viewed by close to two million people and 10 tweets produce more than a million impressions.

Bayly also oversees the force’s public evidence submission site, which is a digital asset management system open to the public to upload photos and videos.

“We’re able to see it all in a screenshot and then later on I can actually license the investigators of this particular incident. They can pull out any of those videos and stills behind the police firewall where it becomes police evidence,” he explained.

“So we trigger the public evidence submission site. It’s run by Microsoft Azure, so it sits in the cloud and you can look at all those images up there without download loading them all behind the firewall.”

When media is uploaded, the citizen has to enter details that drive accountability. It also allows for police to contact them should they need to be called as a witness.

“Footage of the actual incident — that for example that came into our digital asset management system of the guy trying to stab the police officers. He was then shot,” Bayly explained, showing footage to the audience up until the suspect being shot.

With Australia rushing the passing of new laws that ban the sharing of abhorrent material on social media, which followed Facebook users taking 29 minutes to report a live-streamed video from the Christchurch terrorist attack, having an out-of-public-sight repository is important.

SEE: Why the tech industry is wrong about Australia’s video streaming legislation (ZDNet)

Building a following

While Bayly classed the activities from his team around the Bourke Street incident as successful, it was made possible through the actions of the social media crew leading up to the attack.

Sharing an anecdote, Bayly detailed how months prior to the incident, police had issued a warrant for a man called Daniel.

“He actually commented back to us and said, ‘Can you use a better photo, though? This is a horrible mug shot’,” he recalled.

“I went back and said, ‘Hi Daniel, please visit your nearest police station and we’ll arrange for a photo to be taken of you’. Funnily enough, Daniel turned up not too long after.”

The post and Daniel’s response went “wild”, Bayly said.

“It went viral around the world — but, you know, this is the engagement that we’re after. Why do we do this? Because we want people to be there in a time of crisis,” he continued.

Victoria Police’s most successful post was during the 30 year anniversary of Back to the Future, with a post reaching 6.5 million people.

“An amazing statistic — before Facebook changed its algorithms, of course — but nonetheless we just did a mock arrest of Marty McFly and my boss at the time said, ‘What the f are you doing?’ and I said the reason we’re doing this is so we’ve got them there in a moment when something like [Bourke Street] occurs,” Bayly said.

As Salesforce social specialist Charlie Roe added during Bayly’s presentation, it’s important to listen to the conversations that are happening in the social media sphere.

“If you’re not listening to social, you’re not really going to pick up all the sentiment, the conversations that are happening around your brand. You’re not going to realise any problems, you’re not going to be able identify any issues,” Roe said.

Bayly added that there is a lot of negativity received through its social media platforms, but said nonetheless it’s about using the power of social media for Victoria Police’s benefit.

Where to now?

From an omni-channel point of view, Victoria Police has just launched another engagement platform through Facebook Messenger. It now reaches citizens through Facebook, Messenger, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram.

“An artificially intelligent driven bot where we can push stuff out now because we know Facebook is only going to get to about 1% of people in the news feed,” Bayly said of the Messenger addition. “So you’ve got to look at an omni-channel approach.

“Commentary in the first month increased by 645% as a result of launching Messenger on February 11. So when I talk about intense resourcing of social media — it’s a hell of a job.”