Font Size: A A A

Case Studies

The strange case of James Charles in Brum

A teenage beauty influencer from New York brought Birmingham city centre to a standstill on Saturday. How did it happen and what does it tell us about security, crowd and risk management in the online age? And what is a beauty influencer? Mark Rowe reports.

Three days before James Charles arrived at the Bull Ring, someone tweeted: “He’s going to shut down that Bull Ring, thousands of people are going to show up.” They were right.

For two days afterwards the scenes at the shopping mall – and the gridlock in the city centre – made the regional TV news as presenters of a certain age asked who James Charles was, and why had they been caught in the traffic james (beg pardon – that should be jams), that the Bull Ring management tried to suggest were due to road works. The whole episode – best watched on clips on Youtube from fans (mainly young women) in the crowd – shows that gatherings are not dead in the atomised online age. The principles of event security planning still apply, even more so, because the very nature of online following are harder to gauge than in the ‘good old days’ when you could tell which pop music stars were likely to pull the biggest crowds, for personal appearances, by their position in the hit parade.

Is it really more difficult? Because the metrics are still there to be read. James Charles was in Birmingham for the official opening of the Bull Ring branch of Morphe, an American chain retailing make up products, on level one. Youtube videos show standing room only on that level and the one above, and some room for regular shoppers on the level below. Morphe had invited fans to apply online for 250 tickets for James Charles’ appearance. From the number of applications, organisers could gauge interest. The Bull Ring afterwards did say that it involved West Midlands Police in planning beforehand, who deployed officers, who could be seen on videos with linked arms (including at least one Bull Ring security man) holding back the front of the crowd well in front of James Charles.

While some online comments did remark on the dangers (of so many being on the balcony with a drop), and the crowd did show some of the spooky tendencies that people do when in the mass – chanting and screaming for no apparent reason, and stopping soon after, without apparent cause either – police reported no arrests and no incidents. Indeed, why should they have? The mainly youthful audience were there to do no more than see their hero, ideally; and as that was plainly impossible given the numbers, above all to be part of an event. It was telling that when James Charles did appear – to cut a ribbon in front of the store – a few of the crowd waved, but most were filming in the presumed direction of James Charles, and screaming (and doing both at once?).

James Charles himself put online a 20-second video of himself showing himself briefly. “Hi sisters!” he said (a regular term of his). “James Charles here!” The telling point is that if the crowd had wished to mob him – whether out of malice or pure love – they could have overwhelmed the security (uniformed, James Charles’ personal entourage and retail staff generally) with ease. They chose not to, because they reflect their hero, who is all smiling emojis and breathless Twitter talk (sprinkling his tweets with ‘omg’ and ‘oh my god’ and ‘hi UK!’).

No harm done, then. Except that others reported that cars were left parked on the street as it took hours for anyone else to make it by road through central Birmingham. Birmingham City Council said afterwards that it had not been informed of the event and would have worked with Bull Ring if it had been. Except that does raise the question; the council would have done what? Put on buses? Told shoppers to stay away, risking an already shaky retail economy? It was telling that the shops next to Morphe, the pre-online era Clinton Cards and HMV, might as well not have been open – no-one could pass the crowd to enter.

What can we learn? We already know from strategic risk managers such as Dr David Rubens that risks are inter-connected and complex, and once a crisis begins, it can cascade – in this case, people unrelated to the James Charles appearance were gridlocked. That applied as much to ambulances, buses, deliveries, and anyone going through the city centre to everything else going on that Saturday afternoon.

Crowd management, at the risk of stating the obvious, begins with estimating numbers. The latest version of the Green Guide, the Sports Ground Safety Authority’s guidance document, for that reason starts with calculating ‘safe capacity’: “…. the assessment of how many spectators can be safely accommodated …. the most important step towards the achievement of reasonable safety’. To put it more brutally than the Guide; if too many people are in too small a cubic space, they will be crushed to death.

You have to go beyond your numbers, as Keith Still set out in his Introduction to Crowd Science (CRC Press, 2013). Are your crowd members old ladies, agile youths; happy, angry? To develop a ‘safe, robust crowd management plan’, as Still set out, you need to model your crowd; have some idea of how it will behave.

The Bull Ring managed the event. “Would customers please clear the surrounding area; James Charles will not be back out today, thank you,” the public address said. While the event played out online, in anticipation, at the time and afterwards, it was unlike, for example, that modern phenomenon of a crowd panic made out of little or even nothing, that becomes a hazard if people are fleeing an imagined threat and collide or get run over. Such as the panic in London’s West End in December 2017, when shoppers thought they heard gunshots (given reality by tweets and re-tweets of people’s unfounded fears and passing on of rumour). The James Charles affair was also unlike another crowd – with more serious consequences – in Birmingham city centre; the open-air performance by the pop group JLS for Christmas lights switching-on in November 2009, when dozens were hurt in a crowd surge.

No matter how the crowd turns up and no matter how unexpected it is to civic and media leaders, once it does, crowd management applies. The veteran Birmingham journalist Graham Young tweeted a black and white picture of Tiffany, the pop singer, who drew a similar crowd at the previous Bull Ring centre, in 1988. Something to ponder is the potential for things to go tragically wrong, even though Morphe and the Bull Ring did the right things. In the 1960s there were cases or suspicions that irresponsible promoters and agents of pop singers had cause to be pleased, if personal appearances by their acts, or queues for tickets at concert venues, led to crushes and melees, if it meant dramatic photos. It brought press publicity and at least showed that the acts had a following.

Rather than use the cliche ‘new normal’, let us end with the man himself. He noted in one tweet that ‘virtually unknown’ (vloggers like him) and ‘8000 screaming fans’ should not be used in the same sentence (‘lol’). “I can’t believe this is my life,” he titled his 20-second video. No matter how unreal, such Youtube influencers require real-world managing.


Related News