Staff at News UK's London Bridge office found themselves at the centre of one of 2017's biggest news stories – a combined vehicle ramming and stabbing attack by terrorists. As well as having a duty to keep staff safe from harm, the publisher had an obligation to its readers to continue reporting the news despite potential business interruptions.
Production of daily newspapers is a 24/7 operation involving many interdependent processes and critical timings. Despite the huge potential for disruption, with the help of its business continuity partner Sungard Availability Services, News UK was able to publish all editions and formats of The Sunday Times and The Sun on Sunday, and then daily editions of The Times and Sun in full and on time after the attacks when their London Bridge HQ was in lock-down and inaccessible.
News UK owns titles including The Sun, TLS, The Times and The Sunday Times. It is part of global media and information services business News Corp.
News publishing is an around-the-clock operation and just after 10pm on Saturday 3 June – the night of the London Bridge and Borough Market terror attack – 204 staff were hard at work in The News Building at 1 London Bridge Street. The first edition of The Sunday Times had been sent to the printers, the first edition of The Sun on Sunday was still about 30 minutes from completion, and other staff were on shift to work on later and online editions, which are updated in real time.
Caught up in Terror Attack
A handful of staff had left the building minutes before the combined vehicle ramming and stabbing attack that killed eight people and injured 48. One journalist was clipped by the side of the terrorists' van and called in the story to the news desk. Two reporters then left the building to investigate, escorted by the duty Security Supervisor. On their way towards Borough Market, they heard gunshots and immediately made their way back to the newspaper offices. Security, prioritising occupants’ safety, immediately took the decision to lock the building down.
It quickly became clear that the News UK team was in the middle of a terror attack taking place on their doorstep, with events unfolding rapidly. Rob Sowerby, News UK's Director of Health, Safety & Security, and Jonathon Cormack, Business Resilience Manager activated News UK's incident and crisis management procedures.
Their attention then turned to the safety of those staff who had left the offices prior to the attack and may have still been in the vicinity, vulnerable to danger. News UK's emergency notification system was used to send targeted welfare messages to the individuals concerned, asking each to confirm their safety. Automated follow-up messages were sent every 15 minutes to those who had not replied with outstanding responses later followed up manually. Fortunately, all were eventually confirmed safe.
Even before police confirmed that the incident was terror related, it was quickly apparent to Rob Sowerby and Jonathon Cormack that, "Sunday wasn't going to be a normal day. Thinking ahead, we thought it likely the police cordon would remain in pace for some time and we would not be able to come and go from our offices as we pleased."
Fortunately, News UK subscribes to Sungard AS' Workplace Recovery service, which provides a fully-equipped alternative workplace with everything a select group of staff need to carry on their jobs.
A Home from Home
Around 1am – half an hour after the police had formally declared the event a terror incident – the pair made the decision to invoke their Workplace Recovery contract with Sungard AS. Sungard AS swung into action to get the recovery centre set-up to News UK's predefined specification, ready to receive journalists, sub-editors and editors; designers and publishing services; and members of the commercial team due to work on Monday editions well before the start of the Sunday morning shift at 6.45am.
However, it transpired that News UK's designated recovery site would be within the police cordon so it could not be used. This was not a problem as Sungard AS' rollback capability – designed for wide area incidents like this – enables customers to recover to the next available facility, which was just over half a mile away and was already factored into News UK's incident management planning.
Newspapers Produced from Recovery Facility
News UK's recovery was so effective that despite the potential for huge disruption, on Sunday 4 June the company produced the full Monday editions of both The Sun and The Times from the Sungard AS recovery facility.
Crucially for the newspapers' distribution operation, critical timings did not slip so News UK was able to honour the print and distribution agreements in place with other publishers and avoid the additional costs incurred by delays. Most importantly of all, its employees were kept safe from harm.
"Before the terror attacks, we'd had experience of handling major incidents and invocations but nothing on this scale," says Rob Sowerby. "There's been a realisation that far from being theoretical, our business continuity strategy is absolutely critical to the ongoing daily operations of the business. We've had tremendous buy-in from the Executive to the extent they've signed off investment in refinements we've since made to our plans."
Audit and consulting firm Deloitte reviewed News UK's handling of the incident and invocation of Sungard AS' Workplace Recovery. They concluded, "News UK responded successfully to the incident by following planned and rehearsed processes with the titles producing full editions on schedule and without any indication to the general public that there had been disruption to News UK operations."
Nonetheless, News UK has taken away some learning points from its latest experience and has refined its plans accordingly:
- The internet bandwidth it had specified for the Sungard AS recovery site turned out to be insufficient, so this has now been increased.
- The number of application licenses it held was inadequate for the number of users, so this has also been increased.
- The incident highlighted the need to undertake a more detailed examination of business continuity arrangements for day two onwards and, consequently, these are now being reviewed.
- While News UK had the ability to redirect phones to the Sungard AS recovery site on a one to one basis, it has invested in an enhanced solution to more closely replicate its newsroom environment.
- News UK recognises staff familiarity with the Sungard AS recovery facility would smooth the process further and, as a result, site visits are being arranged.
- The crisis management team has reviewed and validated its incident and staff communications strategy generally and has increased the number of pre-prepared communications templates to save valuable time in a crisis.