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Communicating Effectively With The Public About Terrorism In Crowded Places

From the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats…

Effective public communication can help prevent attacks on crowded places by encouraging reporting. It can also reduce the impact of attacks that it was not possible to prevent by informing the public about how to protect themselves. Despite this, there has historically been limited research on the impact of communication campaigns on public perceptions of the likelihood or risk of terrorist attacks, or the effectiveness of the messaging in informing protective health behaviours prior to or during an attack.

Our research applies theories of risk perception, risk communication and health psychology to explore the effectiveness of existing campaigns in preventing attacks by increasing reporting behaviours (e.g. ‘See it, Say it, Sorted’) and protecting life by increasing the likelihood of members of the public engaging in protective health behaviours (e.g. ‘Run, Hide, Tell’) when an attack occurs.

See It, Say It, Sorted

Pre-event communication is often understood in terms of providing information about protective actions that can be taken when an event occurs. Pre-event communication in a counter-terror context also has the potential to prevent a terrorist attack from taking place. We used a survey experiment to examine the impact of communication campaigns designed to encourage public vigilance and reporting on railways.

Results indicate that the ‘See It. Say It. Sorted’ campaign is effective in encouraging members of the public to report suspicious behaviour in train stations. However, in addition to reporting suspicious behaviour to a member of rail staff or a police officer, as requested, most respondents answered that they would also consider reporting to a member of staff in the concourse café. This highlights the importance of providing all members of staff with training on how to respond to reports, rather than only training those directly responsible for security.

Results also suggest that future public vigilance campaigns should address differences in lay and official definitions of suspicious behaviour to reduce uncertainty as a barrier to reporting, and include guidance about specific suspicious behaviours to increase reporting intentions. Specifically, our work brings further evidence to bear on previous studies indicating that members of the public tend to focus on more familiar, traditional criminal activity such as pick-pocketing or car theft.

In contrast, individuals are less willing to report terrorism-related behaviours if they are uncertain about the relationship between the behaviours and attack planning. Drivers such as the perceived benefits of reporting are particularly important for increasing the likelihood of reporting suspicious behaviour on rail networks.

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