MI5 turns to CIPR for help in preventing terror attacks

Using comms as a weapon against the threat of a terrorist attack is at the heart of new guidance developed by Britain's Security Service and the CIPR.

Workers wearing hazmat suits, in one of the images in the new guidance produced by the CIPR and CPNI
Workers wearing hazmat suits, in one of the images in the new guidance produced by the CIPR and CPNI

The Crisis Management for Terrorist Related Events guidance, released today, has been prompted by research commissioned by the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI), which is accountable to Sir Andrew Parker, director-general of MI5.

Closer collaboration needed

The research into the experiences of 24 organisations that have been hit by terrorist attacks – ranging from the 7/7 bombings to the attacks on London Bridge and Borough Market in 2017 – revealed that "relationships between security and communications professionals are at best tenuous".

In addition, "a gap was identified for guidance materials that covered the specific aspects of a terrorist-related incident".

Russell Square, London, in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings
Russell Square, London, in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings

The CPNI approached the CIPR last September, to develop the resource for comms professionals on the preparation for and management of terrorist threats.

It is the "first ever bespoke guidance material for terrorist-related events", according to the CPNI, and promotes the concept of "security-minded communications".


This is an approach developed by British intelligence to provide people that manage 'soft targets' such as public sites, venues and events with "the ability to utilise communications as part of their protective security measures".

The trick is to make "hostile actors" give up on a target if they view the risk of failure being too high, due to strong security.

It centres on the "active and visible promotion of the security provision" with "dissemination of messages that will hint at security measures in place without giving the game away".

And it states: "It is an approach that many organisations have taken to help deter hostile actors from targeting them."

One example of using comms as a deterrent is the 'See it. Say it. Sorted.' campaign on public transport. But the guidance warns that "security-minded communications is only as good as the security provision that underpins it".

Writing in the foreword, Emma Leech, president of the CIPR, said: "We need to think, as the guidance suggests, that there is a way to communicate that can help to deter a terrorist enterprise."

And the director of the CPNI, whose name cannot be revealed for security reasons, commented: "The guidance will help organisations deploy communications to mitigate the harmful, and often longtail, effects of a terrorist incident on brand and business reputation, value and continuity. However, communications can start earlier in the process and be effective in helping to deter a terrorist incident in the first instance."

Chain of command

The guidance recommends that comms professionals "contribute to contingency plans, lead the crisis communications strategy, put the right skills and resources in place, and develop positive relationships with key partners and stakeholders in advance".

After a terror attack, the police "will have the lead role in communicating to external audiences in an effective and timely fashion" and "organisations should not communicate directly to external audiences on anything related to the incident".

It adds: "Understanding how police processes and protocols work is key to planning."

Choice of words

Comms teams need to ensure the "right language" is used and "not to glorify, nor to make value judgements or exercise partiality when it comes to descriptors around terrorism".

The guidance adds: "For example, use of the word 'terrorist' to describe the perpetrator is generally not advised."

24/7 pressure

Another issue addressed in the guidance is that of staffing, with a crisis often resulting in teams working round-the-clock. Extra staff from other departments or organisations should be drafted in to help, it says.

Comms professionals are also warned that they should prepare to be deployed at short notice, with a 'grab bag' packed with essentials such as a phone charger, water, and change of clothes.

Once the crisis has passed, "there could be an ongoing requirement to continue messaging" to communicate the progress of ongoing investigations, as well as providing support for victims.

Next steps

The guidance is being disseminated across the comms and security professions, and the CIPR is working with the CPNI to develop a half-day course aimed at senior comms professionals at 'soft targets' such as shopping centres and sports grounds. A webinar will also be hosted by CIPR to present the new resource.

"Fundamental to the success of this work, and ultimately the improved readiness of UK-based business for a terrorist incident, is the need for collaboration between the security and communications functions," the guidance states.

"And although the partnership between CIPR and CPNI will facilitate this, it is up to seniors representing these functions to make that collaboration work in practice."

The guidance was published as the UK remains under ‘severe’ threat of an attack - a classification by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre which means such an event is "highly likely".

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