Exeter City Council provided an exemplary public service with limited resources during the Cathedral Green fire. There was an obvious investment in preparation and training which was evidenced by the fact they were on site within an hour of a night-time crisis. In an extremely pressured environment, Exeter City Council displayed an innovative use of new technology, including live images and heat maps, to aid the communication efforts. They used their insight and understanding of the community’s concerns and requirements to maintain resilience and went above and beyond to assist local businesses with their recovery efforts. This was a highly emotive situation which incorporated expert handling of the community, local businesses, councillors and the media to drive the recovery of a historic city.

Finalists:

  • Cadent
    No pressure: Race to restore 6,000 gas supplies
  • Cohn & Wolfe and Warburtons
    Warburtons
  • Devon and Cornwall Police
    Operation Jestbook, counter-terrorism incident, Devon
  • Edelman London
    Combating fake news; The ‘worm’ that turned
  • National Ambulance Communications Group (NACOM)
    BBC Ambulance Day – 30th November 2016

Entry:

Explanation of issue/crisis and objectives:

At 5am on Friday, 28 October 2016, a fire started above an art gallery at Exeter’s Cathedral Green. In a very short space of time it had spread to a pub, a cafe, and the Royal Clarence Hotel, believed to be the oldest hotel in England. Shops and businesses in the adjoining streets and High Street were also severely affected directly or indirectly.

The fire was not brought under control until Sunday, 30 October and remaining hotspots, dangerous structures and an extended cordon brought major disruption to the city, businesses, residents and visitors for months to come.

Objectives:

  1. Warn, inform and reassure the public about the event and its aftermath
  2. Maintain business as usual where possible, emphasise that the city is open for business and minimise impact on the economy
  3. Support and inform affected businesses and employees and help them return to normal
  4. Recognise and respond to public interest in the loss of a historic building of architectural importance
  5. Facilitate fundraising and coordinate offers of support
  6. Brief and prepare local councillors, MPs and senior managers.

 

Research, planning and strategy:

Our overarching communications strategy and action cards are included in our Emergency Plan. Our experience of another, recent, city centre fire highlighted the importance of using our own communication channels, multi-media content and face-to-face meetings to engage directly with the public and other stakeholders, in addition to using traditional press and media channels.

Whilst the immediate response phase of communication was led by the emergency services, it soon became clear that the scale and dynamic nature of this fire, the level of public interest and the broad range of objectives would require early, dedicated leadership and resources from the council’s Communications and Economy teams. When responsibility for communication passed to the council in the recovery phase, a communications sub group played a critical role in steering the recovery as part our coordinated approach.

 

Tactics and their implementation, including creativity and innovation:

Friday 28th October:

  • Emergency response team, including a communications lead, in place from 6am. Communication priorities set. Council officers on scene to co-ordinate messages with emergency services
  • Regular, comprehensive updates start on exeter.gov.uk, @ExeterCouncil, Facebook and e-mail alerts
  • Housing officers contacted and on scene to help evacuees with welfare needs e.g. clothes and mobile phone chargers
  • Council broadcasts Facebook Live video of the fire – (a new initiative that increased our Facebook following by more than 2,000)
  • Leader of the council and chief executive briefed and talking to the media
  • Contact details collated for affected shops and businesses to populate e-mail list Saturday 29th October
  • Posted frequent updates on changes in the cordon, including a live map, and updates on which businesses were open or due to open
  • Councillors and members of staff helped support cordons to relieve emergency services and provide local knowledge
  • Facilitated couple getting married at our historic Guildhall inside the cordon.

Sunday 30 October:

  • Launched the start of daily conference calls with the emergency services, hotel owners, transport operators
  • Set up a closed Facebook group for businesses
  • Arranged drop in sessions and weekly meetings for businesses
  • Free office space provided for a firm of solicitors
  • Started working with over 200 businesses, along with a host of partners, to get them open again
  • Video and pictures obtained from turntable ladders, and shared on social media.

Monday 31 October onwards:

  • Set up and ran the telephone advice line for businesses
  • Regular meetings with the business community and agencies providing support
  • Set up the Historic Exeter Fire Appeal
  • Set up on-site information desks to advise and support businesses
  • Launched a survey for loss of earnings and the impact
  • Ensured the popular Christmas Market could go ahead
  • Arranged with partners for fire-fighters to switch on Christmas lights
  • Exeter Guildhall provided a venue for opera when Devon & Exeter Institution closed due to the cordon
  • Organised a public meeting on the importance of the hotel and its future with leading local historian Todd Gray. More than 300 attended. It was filmed professionally and covered on Facebook Live. It was so successful a second event was set up
  • Held a daily comms conference call with the emergency services, hotel owners, transport operators
  • Launched a book of memories of the hotel at Exeter Guildhall
  • Broadcast a video of the entire event which had 31,000 views.

 

Demonstrate how negative impacts were avoided, positives achieved and improvements made:

Businesses were understandably concerned about loss of business and the council could have potentially been seen as slow to react. Our close liaison with the emergency services and use of the closed Facebook Group, social media updates and face-to-face contact ensured that they had dynamic information which was much appreciated.

The live cordon map was critical for letting people know where they could and couldn’t go and any adverse criticism was avoided by updating this in real time via feedback from those on the cordon.

Ensuring that the popular Christmas Market could continue on Cathedral Green avoided a negative reaction and emphasized how the city centre was open to visitors.

There was significant public concern about preserving heritage and reinstating architecture, and fears that a modern structure would replace the historic hotel. This was dismissed at an early stage with reassuring statements from the council leader and chief executive.

 

Measurement and evaluation:

Facebook:

  • People reached: 1,058,841
  • Live reactions: 25,655
  • Live comments: 11,414
  • Live shares: 6404
  • Live video views: 550,151
  • Total mins viewed: 381,749 (6362 Hours, 265 Days)
  • 10 videos posted between 28 Oct and 2 Nov.

Twitter between 28 Oct and 5 Nov 2016:

  • Retweets: 2051
  • Replies to tweets: 102
  • Likes on our tweets: 1545
  • URL Clicks: 3720
  • Media Views: 25162
  • Media Engagement: 17987
  • Total reach was 577,400 (64,000 tweet impressions per day).

General:

  • Positive feedback from businesses, councillors, press and the public
  • 7 broadcast interviews
  • Historic Exeter Fire Appeal raised more than £1
  • 600 people attended two history talks
  • The fire cordon live map was viewed more than 48,000 times
  • More than 200 businesses helped to return to their premises
  • Exeter ranked No.1 on Gov Rank’s digital performance tool for October 2016.

 

Budget and cost effectiveness:

£400k (based on those involved working 10 days each) is a rough estimate. This is considered minimal in an incident of this scale to protect the public interest.