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Risk communications

By Lt. 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 requires two broad areas of information transfer: communicating about the incident or hazard itself and responding to 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. Information also can be classified for use in both a strategic and tactical sense.

For the terrorist, information also is strategic and/or tactical. In an earlier article, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (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 publicized widely 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 aircraft's radio to communicate information to the hostage negotiation teamii. For law enforcement officials and emergency responders in general, the skillful release and delivery of targeted 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 communicates with the public about evacuation routes, sheltering in place and other responses in the event of an emergency. You are educating and enabling the public by creating official, trusted channels of important information. Keeping citizens updated with accurate, useful information mitigates fear and panic. These channels of communications also save lives because people generally will 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 also should spend time developing relationships within your news media community; ideally, the media should consider your PIO a trusted partner in emergency situations. The appropriate and timely 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. Perhaps an even more precise statement is that we expect police officers to be candid. For law enforcement officials, being candid involves providing a full disclosure of all known and relevant information. For instance, if you are testifying in court, you are expected to give all of the information you have, 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 will be times when a member of the news media will ask a question for which you shouldn't provide a candid answer. You may know who the suspect is, but giving the name would jeopardize the investigation. You may know that the tactical team is about to make entry, but sharing that information might jeopardize the team's 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 answer questions skillfully 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 to ensure that they fully understand agency policies on interacting with the media. For instance, there is some information that is not provided to the news media, such as 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 demphasizing 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, either of which encourages the public to listen 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.

    [The Department of Homeland Security provides general explanations and preparedness activities for the Homeland Security Advisory. However, these explanations and activities are intended for government agencies. The American Red Cross has developed a number of companion explanations for individuals, families, schools and businesses. You can access this information on their Web site.]

Controlling the Delivery of Information

Freedom of the press is essential to individual freedom. While it is not our job to manipulate the media, we can work more effectively with them by understanding their objectives and accommodating them whenever possible. Essentially, there are two kinds of journalism - investigative reporting and news gathering. At the scene of an incident, you most likely work with journalists who are in the news-gathering business. You can control the delivery of information by providing what they need - timely access to the information available.

    General Media Guidelines

    While media access laws and regulations do differ from state to state, 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, such as terrorist incidents, unless the activities of news media personnel prevent emergency personnel from doing their job.


    • Credentialed news media representatives are not to 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 recommended strongly that trained, 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 allowed inside a perimeter or a working safety zone. However, journalists cannot be restricted from entering non-critical areas. Indeed, creating an exclusive area for credentialed news media personnel that is closed off to the public but does not interfere with your operations is a simple way of meeting the media's need for access. Having a separate briefing area is still a good idea; creating another, more open area allows news media personnel room to get photographs and other information .

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 constraints due to their broadcast schedules. If you know that the local news begins at 1700 hours, try to 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 that a full briefing will occur as information becomes available.

Full cooperation with the news media is useful in meeting the strategic demands of risk communications. It also can help in the management of tactical information. By having specific "press only" locations, emergency personnel can control the access to ongoing 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. In consideration of today's technology, a fully equipped command post should include the staff and a means of monitoring news broadcasts to identify misinformation and information leaks. Broadcast monitoring also can 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. While we have used terrorism as a vehicle to discuss risk communications, you are more likely to be faced with another type of incident, such as a natural disaster or high-profile crime. All of the principles of risk communication we've discussed apply to any emergency situation 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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