Crisis PR: In Vancouver, Social Media Was a Riot

by PR Coach on June 22, 2011

Iconic photo of couple kissing amid riot

Social media played a huge role in the post-Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver last week. It’s also being used by residents to defend and restore their beautiful city’s reputation. It makes a fascinating PR study of social media in a crisis.

The Vancouver Canucks had a storybook NHL season. Though they lost to the Boston Bruins, it was one of the best Stanley Cup series in years. That didn’t stop crowds of drunken young people intent on creating trouble after the seventh and deciding game.

As more than 100,000 fans gathered downtown, things turned ugly fast, escalating into a terrible riot seen on newscasts, in newspapers and on social media around the world.

After just three days, there were already 22,823 news stories on Google.

Like many recent large scale global political events and natural disasters, social media enabled live coverage of the riots. I’ve gathered a selection of these resources below. They tell a compelling news story both for residents and those far away.

Some of these stories and pictures will touch you deeply whether you’re a Vancouver resident or just wanting insight into this news story.  As in Egypt and Libya, there are tragic incidents balanced by heartwarming stories of humanity and community spirit.

Social Media During the Riot

Let’s look at how social media played in the lead up to and during the riot:

  • Texting, instant messaging  and Tweet Ups contributed to huge post-game crowds downtown
  • Social media fanned the flames of the riot through text, video and photo sharing; instant messaging; tweets; e-mails; and live posts by citizens and journalists
  • Vancouver police used live Tweets to encourage public to report crimes via Crime Stoppers and other resources
  • VPD police suggested text messages be used to report crime tips: ‘BCTIP’ to 274637
  • Mob mentality and the presence of media, thousands of cell phone cameras, video cams and other cameras seemed to encourage escalating violence
  • Bystanders were egging on drunken youths, encouraging damage, vandalism, and looting
  • Many of the mostly-young people committing crimes seemed to be further encouraged by the celebrity; most were not concerned or failed to recognize they were being captured on all kinds of cameras and social media.

It was difficult not to continue watching local media coverage well into the late night and early morning hours. Coverage was shocking yet compelling whether you followed it on TV, Twitter, Facebook, E-mail or by telephone with friends living in the area.

Post-Riot Social Media

After the riots, there was fascination mixed with shock and disbelief as media and social media coverage continued nonstop.

Social media channels were being used by all kinds of individuals and organizations:

  • City of Vancouver newsroom with news releases and instructions for volunteer cleanup
  • Vancouver Police Department newsroom with news releases and instructions for citizens to submit video and photos of vandalism and crime for police investigation
  • Mainstream media news coverage of the riot, the cleanup and of the embarrassment playing on national and global media
  • Extensive blogging and analysis by residents and bloggers near and far
  • Flickr features hundreds of dramatic photo uploads
  • Twitter coverage continues minute by minute and trends on several related topics
  • Numerous Facebook walls suggest visitors identify pictures and video of those committing crimes; a lynch mob mentality seems to prevail in many comments
  • Full page newspaper ads run in both daily newspapers by pop singer and Vancouver resident Michael Buble and The Bay department store, each thanking volunteers and encouraging pride in the city
  • YouTube video clips of the riot are receiving tens of thousands of views; several have more than 130,000 views already
  • Mainstream media and their social media sites continue coverage and post-riot analysis
  • Some of the blog posts are as passionate and well-written as any journalism anywhere
  • Police continue to use social media for investigation
  • Some riot participants have posted online apologies publicly or anonymously and others have begun turning themselves in to police
  • The Bay department store held a free morning pancake breakfast to thank cleanup volunteers who were invited through social media
  • The latest development has been a series of widely-circulated public apologies in both mainstream and social media. The efforts have drawn applause and criticism as well as the expected deluge of vigilante-type comments.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg in a dramatic story. It raises interesting theories and points of view about the impact and outcomes of news and events covered and influenced by social media.

The Vancouver Sun daily newspaper reported on some of the more dramatic outcomes of social media including:  a suburban doctor and his family forced to leave home and fearful of community backlash because of their son’s actions while their son faces losing scholarship and a position on the national water polo team; several employees being fired for Facebook postings; a University of BC donor threatening to withdraw donations unless a female student, photographed looting a tuxedo store, is expelled; a 20-year-old professional mountain biker losing sponsors; and several businesses received heavy criticism for the behavior of several of their employees identified as riot participants.

As the newspaper noted:

“Vigilante retribution delivered via social media and online “name and shame” sites is delivering what may well be life sentences to riot participants while the legal system is just beginning to work its way toward due process.”

The outcome of social media and its role in this riot could have far-reaching consequences:

Christopher Schneider, a UBC sociologist and expert in criminology and social media, said the massive online reaction to the Vancouver riots is unprecedented and potentially as groundbreaking as WikiLeaks.

“There will be a lot of fallout, and we will probably see a lot of case law coming out of this.”

It will also, perhaps, change the way citizens move in the virtual world, forever. “The mob mentality has moved into cyberspace for the first time.”

Vancouver police received more than 3500 e-mail tips from the public within three days:

  • 53 with videos attached
  • 676 with links to YouTube
  • 708 with images attached
  • 1011 with hyperlinks to other social media sites other than YouTube (mostly Facebook)
  • 344 emails contain only text
  • 280 Crime Stoppers tips received
  • 900 additional emails have been received by the VPD Public Affairs Section.

The riot and social media have spun off several new terms including “apoloblogs”, “tweet bleats” and other random apologies. Read Camille Cacnio’s blog apology and Tod Maffin’s criticism as well as Nathan Kotylak’s open letter of apology. Kotylak waived his young offender status (under age17) to make this statement through his lawyer. These are just a few apologies beginning to surface by guilty participants.

What’s It Mean for PR?

Other than living in Vancouver and watching the riot firsthand, why do I think this is important for PR? It’s a great case study in crisis public relations. The use of social media by numerous organizations is noteworthy. The scale of citizen journalism seems unprecedented.

The use of social media as a tool to identify and investigate criminal activity is significant as is the high level of citizen participation. Community relations was highly visible. Many businesses received supportive calls and communications through social media from the public. Affected businesses thanked residents for cleanup help.

The level of public vigilante behavior during the riot and online in social media presents crisis management challenges. While social media may have been part of the cause, its reach, speed and transparency also offered support and useful channels for communications during the riot and after.

The biggest PR hurdle remains: restoring Vancouver’s world-class reputation as one of the safest, friendliest, most beautiful cities in the world.

I’m willing to bet if you browse a few social media resources below, you won’t be able to stop reading and viewing. It’s a sad but fascinating study in psychology, sociology, social media and a community’s response to a crisis both in the short-term and long-term. The implications will keep pundits and researchers busy for years.

What are your thoughts about social media’s role in this riot? Are there other important PR lessons to be learned? It’s hard to be objective here in Vancouver but it’s easy to feel sorry and embarrassed by the outcomes.

UPDATE: Sept 18, 2011

In contrast to the London riots, Vancouver police have yet to lay charges from the June 2011 riots. Citizens are bewildered. VPD recently launched a new website asking for public help identifying suspects and the results have been positive as investigations continue.

We’ve got a wide selection of crisis communications and social media resources in our PR Library. It’s open 24 x 7 and you can also sign on to our blog or get our RSS Feed directly to your favorite reader.

Photo credit: YouTube

Selection of 2011 Vancouver Riot Resources Online

Local media coverage:

National &International media coverage:

Twitter:

  • #ThisismyVancouver
  • #canucksriot
  • #riot2011

Facebook:

Blogs:

Flickr Photos:

YouTube:

Other Online Resources

City of Vancouver news releases:

Vancouver Police Department news releases:

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Author: Jeff Domansky is Editor, The PR Coach

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