How to handle media relations in times of terror

Terrorist incidents like Westminster, Manchester, and London Bridge made me think hard about the contribution we can make as communications professionals.

Comms can play a key role in helping the public understand the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of terrorist incidents, writes Daniel Blackman
Comms can play a key role in helping the public understand the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of terrorist incidents, writes Daniel Blackman

At a time when "fake news" and "social media bots" are hot topics, communications professionals working with terrorism and crime specialists should be thinking about the contribution we can make to inform and support journalists and the general public, to understand the "what" and "why" of terrorist incidents, by providing quality experts to shed light.

As the media relations officer for academics at the Terrorism and Extremism Research Centre (TERC) at the University of East London, I've acutely perceived that a particular set of skills and professionalism is needed.

There's a body of literature looking at how terrorists use communications, and how the media report terrorism, but little out there about the role of communications, specifically media relations, from the perspective of those explaining and countering terrorism itself.

Yet the seriousness and frequency of attacks like those of Westminster, Manchester, and London Bridge, mean those of us working in communications should be thinking much more about it.

The use of modern communications by terrorists – encrypted mobile phone apps, professionally produced digital magazines, and online propaganda videos – is a central focus in discussions about the spread of terrorism ideology.

These are some of the lessons I have learned from a media relations perspective:

There are victims and families

That fact ought to temper how an incident is approached throughout the news cycle – with respect and without alarmism or insensitivity.

PR work can have the reputation of ardently seeking to get the name of one's company or product into an article or broadcast. Terrorist incidents shouldn't be like that. A sense of "national togetherness" is more important.

New information is constantly breaking

After eye witness photos, phone clips, and verbal accounts, a picture begins to emerge. Initial facts can turn out to be false. Methods used and targets struck can quickly identify likely perpetrator groups, and the identity of the terrorists is pivotal.

Journalists want to make sense of these pieces, so keeping up to date with police and government, and making sure specialists know about it, is important. It means they can offer comment that is relevant to how a terrorist incident unravels.

Readiness and relationship building

That means being ready to respond to a call or email requesting expert comment or discussion at any moment. I've also found social media incredibly useful in following key people and groups when a terrorist incident happens, and responding to requests by journalists for experts to inform reporting.

The other part of readiness is really understanding what your specialists know and when they're available. In my case, I've got academics who cover radicalisation, counter-terrorism, policing, youth crime, violent Irish Republicanism, the far-right, psychology of terrorism, and more besides. If I suggest an expert, I need to be able to tell a journalist precisely why this is the best person to talk.

When TERC launched last year, it was attended by a number of invited specialist reporters from national and regional print and broadcast media. Was there a breaking story to be had? No. Was it an opportunity to provide journalists with useful and well-informed experts? Definitely. Journalists know they can approach the centre and be met with responsive staff.

Think globally

Intelligence tells us that Jihadist terrorism operates as a network. Whether it is trips to Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Germany or Belgium, or inspiration from videos and sermons made by ISIS overseas, other countries are involved.

And of course, the UK is tourism hotspot, so we're seeing victims from across the globe. Media relations professionals should anticipate journalist requests that reflect this global aspect, and reach out to journalists in those countries and their London-based bureaus.

So, let’s make the positive case for professional, responsive, and informed media relations to support and inform the media and the public when terror strikes.

Daniel Blackman is a media relations officer for the Terrorism and Extremism Research Centre (TERC) at the University of East London

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