How to communicate over the terrorist threat?
Terrorist acts, communication operations
Communication is an integral part of terrorism: it enables terrorist organizations to develop an international dimension to localized violent actions. They have one goal: by attacking some people they want to jeopardize the society as a whole. In this regard, terrorists perfectly understood the functioning of the media and social networks. They use it every day, directly or like a baton, for their propaganda. Great democratic tools, our media became sound boxes of the terrorist actions, a kind of great kaleidoscope of their attacks.
Faced with the Paris and Bruxelles attacks, which impacts are increased by a strong media coverage, no answering is not a option for Public Authorities. Worse, we cannot speak anymore about “individual crimes”: the scope and growth of these attacks make these actions: “acts of war” as François Hollande said. Public Authorities therefore suffer the terrorist’s logic, forced to react with strength and thus to give importance to their message. Anti-terrorist actions alone are not enough to reassure the population and strengthen the necessary feeling of national unity in response to an increased external threat : communication is essential. How, then, do we communicate without playing into the hands of terrorists and become a pawn in their “communication plan”?
The delicate balance between the action and the disclosure
In view of the seriousness of the attacks and the grave crisis situation in which the country is immersed, one of the first instinct for the politician is to include communication in the action. Reacting quickly, going to the field and being present in the media are considered as proof of the State mobilization and as signs of compassion for the victims. In addition to these heated reactions, the political power also understood the interest of proactiveness concerning anti-terrorist communication. In this respect, François Hollande communicated about the successful arrest of three terrorists (see our “our view on” 07/21/2015) and more recently Bernard Cazeneuve commented on the police operation even if it was not over…
Nevertheless, communication in those circumstances is risky
First of all when it comes to security. How to react to François Hollande coming to the Bataclan as terrorist attacks were still in process ? Let alone some announcement effects, highly applauded, that turned out to be terrible political trap, as the aborted constitutional reform project proves it. It should be remembered that communication is never an end in itself, furthermore during a crisis. It must not be unrelated to the action or disproportionate to it: words should only support and confirm the action. Here is the whole paradox of our profession: often invisible in success, always responsible in failure. This is particularly the case when it comes to such terrible events, when the public totally and justifiably rejects any attempt of political exploitation.
Communicate dealing with the terrorist threat is a delicate balance, requiring to say that actions are taken without showing to much communication efforts. In those sensitive situations, communication has to be limited, precise and careful. With ongoing information, the temptation of hyper-communication sometimes must be resisted, letting action take priority over communication in order to prevent any negligence and inconsistency, intolerable in the eyes of the public. For while communication is essential in the case of a terrorist attack, it shall not be used in the place of action!