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Risk Communications

By Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA


            For both law enforcement officials and terrorist organizations, information is a valuable tool.  For emergency personnel, the release and delivery of information is called risk communications.  Risk communications has two broad implications the incident or hazard itself, and the public reaction to the incident.  Controlling the release and delivery of information can save lives, mitigate loss and speed the resolution of a tactical situation.  In addition to having two broad implications, information can be classified and used in both a strategic and tactical sense.

            For the terrorist, information is also strategic and/or tactical.  In an earlier article, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) definition of domestic terrorism was examined:

Domestic terrorism refers to activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and, occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States[i].

In a strategic sense, terrorists need their acts to be widely publicized so they can create fear.  Terrorists also use information in a tactical sense.  As an example, in 1977, terrorists executed the captain of a hijacked airliner after they learned of media reports that the captain was using his aircrafts radio to communicate information to the hostage negotiation team[ii].  For law enforcement officials and emergency responders in general, the skillful release and delivery of information can counter terrorist activities.  

Tactical and Strategic Information

            Generally, strategic information is used for pre-planning and long-term planning during an incident.  Primarily, strategic information counters terrorism when it is used to educate.  Your agency is using information in a strategic manner if it is communicating to the public about evacuation routes, sheltering in place and other responses in the event of an emergency.  Not only are you educating the public, but you are creating official, trusted channels of communication.  Official and trusted channels of communication counter terrorism by mitigating fear.  These channels of communications also save lives because people will generally follow the directions if they trust the source.

            When your agency participates in training exercises or develops plans for emergency response, information release and delivery must be a critical component.  Just as you run your tactical team through exercises, you should train and test your Public Information Officer (PIO).  The PIO should not only be trained, but should spend time developing liaison within your news media community.  The dissemination of information is a critical component in the global war on terror and your PIO should be a well-trained, practiced and informed team member.

Controlling the release of information

            Truthfulness is ingrained in police officers.  Indeed, police work would be impossible were we not truthful.  When we think about a police officer being truthful we would be more precise if we said that we expect police officers to be candid.  For law enforcement officials, being candid is providing a full disclosure of all known and relevant information.  For instance, if you are testifying, the court expects you to give all of the information, even if it may tend to be exculpatory or mitigating.  It is possible to be truthful without being candid.  While you should not lie to the news media, there are times when you should not be candid.

            There are times when the new media asks a question for which you shouldnt provide a candid answer.  You may know who the suspect is, but giving up the name would jeopardize the investigation.  You may know that the tactical team is about to make entry, but giving up the information might jeopardize their safety.  The difference between being truthful and candid highlights the need to have a highly trained person act as your PIO.  The person needs to be able to skillfully answer questions under pressure.  It also highlights the need to train all personnel in handling media inquires.  All law enforcement personnel, regardless of their rank or position, should have some basic training in media relations.  For instance, there is some information that is not provided to the news media like the names of victims of sexual assault or, generally, the names of juvenile offenders. 

            In the event your agency is giving evacuation warnings or providing preparedness information on a real-time event, you should be as candid as possible.  Warnings or general information to the public have two purposes: to distill fear; and, to provide information.  For information to be effective, it must be perceived as a trusted source of information.  Your messages will lose public confidence and trust if they are not seen as truthful and relevant.

Sometimes public officials believe that by minimizing the danger of a situation they can avoid creating panic.  However, most research and practical experience shows that when people are given complete information they will act on that information in an orderly manner.  In fact, the seeds of panic are a lack of information or a lack of confidence in official information gives birth to rumors.  Your warnings and advice are even more powerful when they are accurate and they provide people with a means of control.  By becoming a trusted and reliable source of information for the public, you can fight terrorism by distilling fear.

Controlling the delivery of information

            The press is essential to our freedom.  While it is not our job to manipulate the press, we can work more effectively with them by understanding their purposes and accommodating them.  Essentially there are two kinds of journalism investigative reporting and news gathering.  At the scene of an incident, you are most likely working with journalists who are in the news gathering business.  You can control the delivery of information by meeting some of the demands of their job.  What they need is timely access to information.

General Media Guidelines: While there is some difference from state to state on media access, there are a few general guidelines.  Essentially, most state law allows credentialed news media access to disaster scenes, crime scenes and the scene of ongoing incidents like terrorist incidents unless the activities of new media personnel prevent  emergency personnel from doing their job.  Further:

        Credentialed news media representatives are not be denied access unless their presence compromises safety, impedes response of emergency equipment or personnel, or interferes with an investigation.

        News representatives are required to present proper press credentials.

        Generally, it is strongly recommended that qualified escorts are provided to news media personnel.

        While not required, it should be recommended to news media personnel that they wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and be given a safety briefing.

        Media aircraft must follow Federal Aviation Administration regulations concerning closures or restrictions of airspace.

No one except emergency personnel should be inside a perimeter or a working safety zone.  However, journalists cannot be restricted from entering non-critical areas.  Indeed, by creating an area that is closed off to the public, but does not interfere with your operations, you can move closer to accommodating the news media.  Often, the creation of a news media area or zone that can only be accessed by emergency personnel and properly credentialed news media personnel will satisfy the need for access.  While having a briefing area is a good idea, it is also a good idea to create another more open area where only news media personnel can work to get information like photographs.

Those working in the news gathering realm of journalism also require that their access to official information be as timely as possible.  Television and radio journalists are especially sensitive to time because their broadcasts begin on a regular schedule.  If you know the local news begins at 1700 hours, try and schedule your briefing at 1630 hours.  Even if you are not prepared to give a full briefing, a well-trained PIO can deliver enough facts to meet the time, content and access requirements of news gathering journalists.  Your PIO can give preliminary facts, warnings and advisories while stating a full briefing will occur as information becomes available.

 Full cooperation with the news media is useful in meeting the strategic demands of risk communication.  It can also help in the management of tactical information.  By having specific press only locations emergency personnel can control the access to on-going tactical information.  It is very important for emergency personnel to realize that zoom lenses, directional microphones and news media aircraft make it possible for sensitive information to be seen or overheard and then broadcast in real-time.  Because of todays technology, a fully equipped Command Post should include the monitoring of news broadcasts as a means to identify misinformation and information leaks.  Broadcast monitoring can also supplement the intelligence gathering process.  With access to the best equipment and highly motivated personnel news media organizations often have real-time information that is useful to the Incident Commander.

Through training, practice and skillful work, an agency can mitigate the strategic and tactical information aims of a terrorist organization.  Finally, while we have used terrorism as the vehicle to discuss risk communications, you are more likely to be faced with a non-terrorism related major incident.  Fortunately, all of the principles of risk communication apply and can help your agency save lives and property.



[i] Terrorism in the United States (1999) Counterterrorism Threat Assessment and Warning Unit

Counterterrorism Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation.

[ii] Poland, J. (2005). Understanding Terrorism: Groups, Strategies and Responses. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey

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