The Importance of Being Honest

Good communication can serve as a bulwark against fear and hysteria. In the aftermath of the Norwegian terror attacks, the government walked the fine line between accuracy and timeliness – and set the stage for an informed discussion of the country’s future.

Communication in crises sets the tone of public understanding and response to devastating events. In practice, competing dynamics operate in transmitting news to a broader public. One is the rush to inform, based on whatever fragments of information are available, assuming timeliness as the primary criterion. Media organizations, seeking to capture a breaking news story, favor this style.

The second dynamic is more measured, based on getting an accurate assessment of what happened and giving a valid analysis of events as a basis for action. Authorities responsible for managing operations after a damaging event favor this approach. Nowhere were these competing dynamics more vividly evident than in the recent reports on the terrorist attacks on government buildings in Oslo and on Utoeya Island, the location of the summer youth camp for the Liberal Democratic Party.

The initial news bulletins sent out by organizations that monitor world events closely suggested that the attacks were organized by Islamist groups, and that the attacker was a Norwegian-Pakistani. These bulletins went out world-wide, and alarmed many people who had been watching, waiting for an attack that had been issued as a warning by Islamist groups after the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

For hours on July 22, there was no report from the Norwegian authorities regarding the terrorist attacks, and those who had received the initial bulletins suggesting Islamic influence as directing the attacks questioned the slow response of the Norwegian police and the national intelligence agency.

Yet, when the Norwegian authorities issued their report and verified that the attacks had been perpetrated by a radical right-wing Norwegian as a protest against Islamic groups and ostensibly to protect the Norwegian culture from influence of foreign immigrants, the rumors that had been initiated by the inaccurate news reports were revealed as unfounded.

The management of information in crisis events is critical both for authorities responsible for action and for news organizations that seek to inform the public of events as they are occurring in real time.

Misinformation may foster further harmful actions or misinterpretation of events that become difficult to correct even after the facts are reported. Delayed information may cause public skepticism of authorities and their ability to cope with damaging or threatening events. In each case, responsible people make judgments based upon incomplete information that is subject to change. In both instances, the receptive public is also making judgments, not only about the actions that are being reported (or not reported), but about the credibility and capacity of the organizations that are reporting the news. This dual exchange shapes public perception of crisis events. In democratic societies, building informed perception of public risk is an ongoing process, but it is particularly shaped by crisis events.

Important in this age of instantaneous communication is communicating to the public a model of crisis communication as an iterative process. Acknowledging the uncertainty in the crisis situation is essential to that model. This means reporting the damaging event quickly, but also noting that not all information is available, stating what is currently being done to assess the situation, and when the next report will be made.

The receptive public then recognizes that the institutions responsible for managing the crisis are engaged, that action is being taken, and that they will be informed regularly as the operations continue.

The Norwegian cultural trait of understatement likely served the authorities well in using factual, neutral language to report the indiscriminate slaughter of young people on Utoeya Island. But the real challenge to Norway and other democratic societies is to understand the threats of extremism and to create communication processes in crisis events that are timely, valid, and consistent with the facts as the situation unfolds.

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