The Situational Threat and Response Signals (STARS) project responds to the challenge of how to communicate effectively with the public about terrorism risks and threats in an increasingly complex and fragmented information environment. The ‘STARS framework’ helps practitioners to ensure that all the main elements and tensions potentially ‘in play’ are being considered in public-facing counter-terrorism (CT) strategic communication campaigns, with corresponding options for actions and techniques to tackle common problems.
The study’s main finding is that how campaigns are ‘read’, is influenced by a range of ‘situational’ factors. Understanding what these are and how they interact with campaign communications assets, can help to make them more effective while minimising unintended consequences. The research provides practitioners with a step-by-step framework to this effect, included at the end of this report.
The study started with a broad multi-disciplinary review of academic literature, available below:
Our literature review identified a wide range of intersecting variables that impact on the strategic communication process, providing a strong foundation for the subsequent primary data collection phase of the project.
We centred the rest of our data gathering around three UK CT campaigns: See it, Say it, Sorted (SiSiS), Action Counters Terrorism (ACT) and Security On Your Side (SOYS). Taking a view that context is likely to matter, we included a comparative angle through attention to different (urban and rural) parts of the UK: England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
We analysed the campaigns in four ways:
- A ‘frame analysis’ studying the visuals and language of campaign assets;
- 20 in-depth practitioner interviews exploring the campaign materials and their use ‘in context’;
- 7 Focus groups including 52 members of the public. Specific assets from the three campaigns were discussed and used as a starting point for wider conversation about terrorism and CT interventions;
- Social media analysis of reactions and engagement towards the campaigns, where data was available.
If a Campaign is the Answer, What is the Problem?
The key problem that campaign delivery teams encounter in their practice is constructing a ‘normal’ terror threat, without it tipping into fear mongering, or becoming so normalised that people disengage. At the same time, campaign messaging needs to highlight particular features (e.g., unattended bags) that should signal to people that there is a need to be alarmed, in order that they decide to act.
When is ‘Normal’ Not Normal?
SiSiS, ACT and SOYS all frame terrorism threats in ordinary, routine contexts, making the point that – although rare – terror attacks arise in normal rather than exceptional circumstances. This study finds that threats in ‘normal’ scenarios are communicated and processed in two main ways:
- Normalisation: when previously unusual or exceptional situations or objects are translated into accepted and expected events or scenarios.
- Anomalisation: when things or situations which appear orderly and ‘normal’ are specifically presented as potential threats.
Fame and Fear
In conducting this study, we identified two key tensions that frustrate the design and delivery of CT campaigns:
- It is easy to be lured into a ‘fear trap’. When CT campaigns try to ‘outbid’ other risks or even different types of terrorist threat, they can – without meaning to – create the negative emotional reactions being sought by terrorists. This is particularly problematic when audiences have been directly affected by terrorism or routinely encounter violence and threat, running the risk that such messaging could be traumatic. Equally, balancing levels of reassurance against enough fear to command public attention is challenging, particularly within those communities where terrorism or threat is relatively ‘normal’.
- Alternatively, creating ‘too much’ awareness of terrorism in the general population can be a ‘fame trap’. It comes from trying to get attention and cut through in the crowded, noisy information environment. Additionally, there is the issue that publics are probably most receptive to CT messaging in the aftermath of ‘signal events’, when it is actually required less; and accessing the right audience segments while not diluting the core message involves seeking a ‘Goldilocks moment’ that is ‘just right’.
Five Key Take-aways
- What is ‘normal’ varies across time and location. In some places, terrorism is ‘normal’; this also stands in terms of the types of ‘normal’ crime risks people are more attuned to. Regardless of ‘the facts’ about terrorism, it is easy for people to explain away a sense of risk.
- Certain terrorism incidents act as agenda setters – they frame ‘what terrorism looks like’ and where it can be expected. At the same time, people make risk judgements based on gut feelings about others’ behaviour, rather than (solely) specified objects of concern.
- There is such a thing as bad publicity: when people become over-exposed to messages they ‘tune out’ - familiarity doesn’t always equal engagement. Over time, CT campaigns create a narrative in the way publics receive and ‘read’ them. Coordinating across campaigns is likely to enhance effectiveness and efficiency. Equally, sometimes it is better to do nothing.
- Wider context impacts message cut-through, in particular the trust climate. Where conventional routes and authorities are distrusted, local community alternatives may bring benefits. Tackling distrust, as opposed to building trust, requires different interventions.
- While social media can increase reach, people remember campaign messages delivered through traditional and ‘up close’ methods. The ‘right balance’ for campaigns is between, not just managing the tensions that underpin particular techniques, but also between broad mass mediated and more ‘traditional’ local approaches.
The framework addresses the key considerations, techniques, mitigating and moderating factors in relation to the 'S - Situation', 'T - Threat', 'R - Response', 'S - Signals' parts of the framework. The key components of the framework are outlined alongside:
- Considerations: critical questions to consider that align with key communicative and contextual challenges;
- Technique: common messaging / influencing techniques available and adopted by practitioners when seeking to respond to these considerations;
- Mitigate: linked environmental tensions to think about when planning to employ a technique;
- Moderate: actions and strategies that may help to moderate or alleviate the impact of these tensions.
The 'A - Adapt' element of the STARS acronym acts as a recurring prompt woven throughout the framework, rather than sitting as a separate consideration.
The framework is not an exhaustive list, nor a set of ‘must do’ rules, but a series of options, derived from empirical research. The different categories are shown separately for clarity, but of course in reality they will have areas of overlap.
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