Thought Leadership

Terror, communication and a wiser world: After Boston, three reasons society’s response to terror has changed

Recent international media stories have focused on the resurgence of terror in North America – notably the Boston Marathon bombing and, in my country, the pre-emptive discovery of an Al-Qaeda plot to attack a train route between Canada and the United States.

Terror can be unifying in its midst, yet polarizing in its aftermath – particularly when security hawks clash with civil libertarians about where to strike the balance between public safety and public liberty. For public relations professionals, such times are often reason for anxiety, as we tend to value dialogue and the quest for mutual understanding – all of which becomes more difficult when senseless acts defy explanation and fear fills the void.

The Boston terror attack has produced appropriate statements of sympathy for, and solidarity with, the victims, and questions for the FBI and other public safety officials. The aftermath, however, has been largely free of the highly prescriptive political, social and military certainties that followed the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001.

These are still early days, and the bombing is still recent news. But if global society’s response to terror has indeed changed, what are the reasons? Here are three ideas:

  • We may crave simplicity, but we understand complexity. As citizens or consumers, shareholders or stakeholders, we may still respond to simple, powerful calls to action, but we are also more educated, more empowered and more (appropriately) skeptical of the claims made by sources of authority. Perhaps this makes us more understanding of the complexity of such events and their causes, and therefore more resistant to extreme responses.
  • We hear more voices, more quickly. Media fragmentation means that while it’s easier to find an audience than ever before, it’s harder to find a mass audience through any one channel. If social networks are the modern-day agora, each of us is more likely to find a variety of voices in the square. While many people will always resist different points of view, they become harder to avoid – and to ignore.
  • The idea of ‘we’ has changed. The globalization of business, communication and culture, the mobility of the world’s population, and the growth of international, interracial and interfaith relationships have created a growing hybridity in many societies. This has changed conceptions of the familiar and the foreign. We also see news that challenges prejudice, such as the fact that last week’s aborted Canadian terror plot by Islamic extremists was foiled in part by the would-be attackers’ imam.

These trends give me reason for optimism, even in grim times. While some will always use communication for pernicious purposes, one can hope that more widespread access to communication can have a moderating influence – making mutual understanding less elusive just when we need it most.

Daniel Tisch, APR, Fellow CPRS, is Chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. He is based in Toronto as CEO of Argyle Communications, and is a Fellow of the Canadian Public Relations Society

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Dan Tisch

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