25/08/2011

By Jemima Gibbons, Social Media Strategist, AAB Engage

Fresh Business Thinking recently reported how David Cameron was looking at shutting down social networks like Twitter and Facebook, albeit temporarily, during times of national disorder. The Prime Minister first made the suggestion in a speech to the House of Commons on Thursday 11 August. His proposal was backed by fellow conservative MP (and keen Twitter user), Louise Mensch, who repeated the message in various media appearances over the next few days:

“Social media isn't any more important than a train station, a road or a bus service,” she tweeted. “We don't worry about police temporarily closing those.”

Unsurprisingly, Cameron and Mensch’s comments quickly provoked a backlash across social networks. Many pointed to the numerous campaigns that had been set up in the wake of the riots: campaigns like #riotcleanup and #riotwombles - examples of how social media has been used to support people rather than fuel further lawlessness.

The UK riots appear to have had two focal points: the police, and business. While police faced the rioters with riot shields and protective suits, most UK businesses were woefully under-prepared. British business outlets were hit hard during the riots, with the Association of British Insurers (ABI) estimating the insured loss alone to be more than £200 million.

We might imagine that business owners, after suffering the brunt of the rioters’ anger, would be keen to support any measures that could lesson the impact of such disorder? But social networks appear to have played a key role for UK businesses during the riots, allowing a form of instant, relevant, yet low-key crisis management.

Sally Butcher, co-founder of Persepolis, a deli in Peckham, found that tweeting during the height of the riots not only allowed her to keep sane, it helped hundreds of others in her local community:

“It would have been totally ridiculous to close [Twitter] down,” she says. “We gained two or three hundred followers because people simply weren’t getting information from anywhere else. They said our tweets were the most useful. For residents in Peckham, we were a vital source of factual information.”

Sally and her husband live above their shop which means that they were able to keep to their normal opening hours. “Spread the word,” she tweeted as the riots abated: “Peckham is totally open for business as usual. (And so are we.)”

Jo Neal of the artisan baking chain, Gails Bakery, says that while their shops were lucky enough to escape direct damage during the riots, Twitter was a great way of finding out what was happening in the local community:

“Twitter is actually the quickest way of seeing the news. There was so much going on, things were exploding all over [London]. I was following all the news from Twitter: clicking through links to watch snippets of television coverage.

“On the night of the worst rioting, things started at about 8.30 so our shop was already shut. I was doing a lot of support the following day, talking about #riotcleanup and things like that. We went down with bread and cakes at the end of the day to give to the police.”

So would Jo see any benefit to closing down Twitter?

“I think it’s ridiculous. Let the conversations go on but monitor the situation closely. I understand that the people organising the riots use code words, but it should be possible to break that code.”

London’s Clapham Junction suffered one of the worst incidents of looting and arson in the country. The Debenhams department store had its windows smashed and thousands of pounds worth of goods stolen. The leading high street brand found Twitter was a great way to communicate with concerned customers:

“There was a lot of misinformation flying around,” says a Debenhams spokeswoman. “We used [Twitter] to communicate out, to tell people exactly what stores were closing. People were saying our stores were on fire: that was just the rumour mill going mad. We used Twitter, predominantly, to get the right information out there.”

And tweeting during the riots brought an unexpected side effect:

“It was amazing, the level of support we were getting. Especially around the [worst hit] Clapham store. People were wishing us well. We were sharing pictures of the store [and damage] with our customers and that was really appreciated. We were re-tweeting customers’ comments and photos the next day.”

While she declines to comment directly on David Cameron’s proposal, the spokeswoman makes it clear that Debenhams’ experience of using Twitter during the riots had been extremely positive:

“It’s a great way to link up with our community. Definitely, following the riots, it’s been fantastic. The beauty of Twitter is that you can properly tap into what’s going on at such a specific point in time - you can reflect the mood and feel of your customers.”

In conclusion, Twitter was not only a vital source of up-to-the-minute news during the recent disturbances, it was also crucial in conveying solidarity and support to communities torn apart by looting and violence. Most of all, the businesses I spoke to valued the ability to speak directly with their customers during the riots.

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