The PR of terror

It’s too early to know whether the Boston Marathon bombing was the work of “organised” terror, or the deranged act of an isolated individual, but either way, acts of terror need to be seen for what they are : obscene and warped expressions of “black” PR. I prefer to call this anti-PR.

Usually, the action itself is a good step or two away from the actual purpose. We are not witnessing the destruction of a munitions factory, for example, or the interruption of strategic and military capabilities. The Twin Towers, in themselves, posed no actual threat to the people who destroyed them, and we can safely assume that the perpetrator of Monday’s malevolence had no particular aversion to long-distance running. Quite simply, these were acts of “anti-PR” – grotesque and evil stunts , designed to communicate particular messages. And in the mad , negative-image world of anti-PR, much of the criteria and thinking were chillingly familiar to most PR professionals : planning, timing, platform, media visibility, impact. We can speculate on the message intended through the Boston bombing, and at some point it will probably become apparent. But of this I’m sure: the message, not the act, was the purpose here. In the same way, 9/11 might be seen as an attempt to demonstrate American vulnerability, to shatter occidental hubris, to show that American cities could easily be exposed to destruction, or to deliver a dozen other possible messages. But it was obviously never simply an attack on two skyscrapers.

For those responsible for countering an act of terror, it is essential to understand and counter the purpose of the terrorist act, and that purpose, nearly always, will be anti-PR : the delivery of a message, the creation of “understanding”, a shift in attitudes and perceptions (maybe, with intended panic) , a grab for headlines and recognition. This is horribly difficult, because, whilst the event will often convey many of its messages with almost immediate and brutal force, the processes of response are not naturally structured that way.

The nine stages of atrocity go this way:

First, the event. The bare act imposes itself first on those it immediately impacts, then on the news media. “A bomb has ripped through…..”, “Twelve students have been shot dead….”
Second, the human story. Just as our thoughts and hearts turn immediately to victims and survivors, so the media lenses and journalist pen-portraits follow the same path. The eight year old boy killed, his sister horribly injured just moments after their father crossed the finishing line. The media search inanely for emotional connection: “How did it feel when…..?” Victims are immediately sanctified and celebrated .

Third, hunt the demon. There is a human need and a media hunger to identify the perpetrator, to blame, condemn, demonise. If you have saints, you must have demons. And this need rushes ahead of any need to comprehend. If, walking to work, someone hits you on the back of the head, you wince, and then you turn to see who did it. Only after that do you wonder why. And the same applies to acts of public terror. Encouragingly, bitter and hard-won experience is perhaps beginning to modify this response among both media and public officials. And more positively, there seems to have been no kneejerk rush to pin guilt upon a perpetrator: in Britain we began to learn this after the release of the Guildford Four and tragically after the 7/7 London bombings; in America, it has been learned more recently. We can be thankful for this. Any attempt to bait and provoke by these attacks has been undermined by this mature response – though the silence of the Boston perpetrator(s) suggests that baiting was probably not their intent, since they’ve provided nobody to retaliate disproportionately against.

Fourth, anger and grief. As the scale and the details of the atrocity become evident, so anger and grief become powerful driving forces, with massive media and political potency. It is here that a managed response can be most difficult and yet most important. The perpetrator has probably committed this act with very specific, carefully calibrated objectives, and aspects of anger and grief will probably be high on the list of intended consequences. But the media, the public and the politicians and officials who represent them often seem blind to the fact that their reactions may be exactly the response intended .

Fifth, defiance. Judged well, this can be a powerful and valuable response. Churchill was a master: “Hitler and his Nazi gang have sown the wind. Let them reap the whirlwind.” (This in the same speech as his famous “Some chicken. Some neck!” Well-pitched defiance can boost morale, stiffen resolve and undermine the enemy. But one of the first rules of conflict propaganda is never to make statements that your audience disbelieves. Do so and you immediately devalue every other statement you make. Perhaps the most colourful example was “Baghdad Bob” (Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf), Saddham Hussein’s Information Minister, who reduced his role to buffoonery and farce, not merely by lying, but by lying so obviously.
Quite often, though, misjudged defiance is not intended to deceive. It’s simply a naive venting, with no understanding of the processes of propaganda. In the case of the Boston Marathon, the UK Sports Minister’s statement this week that he is “absolutely confident here that we can keep the (London Marathon) event safe and secure” created a complete discontinuity between popular knowledge of reality and the narrative he was attempting to construct. How can he possibly be absolutely confident? Of course, the event may well turn out to be “safe and secure”, but the certainty is false. Responses of this sort are of no use: public officials don’t reassure but alienate their audience and sabotage their own purpose when they say the incredible.

Sixth, self-cannibalism. This is more a characteristic of democracies , with a free press, than of restrictive societies and dictatorships. Even though the perpetrator may be clearly identified and universally vilified, there is a hunger (whether driven by media or political imperatives) to find associated blame in the victim society itself. Inadequate policing, poor intelligence, budget cuts, political “dithering”, liberal laws have all been cited in the aftermath of recent atrocities. And here may lie one of the perpetrators’ purposes, seeing a community turn on itself.

Seventh, tokenism. Here, the event itself can become a kind of shorthand, a symbol. Much will depend on who constructs and commands the shaping of that symbol, and how effectively they do so. 9/11 become an emblem and expression of a nation’s defiance, of innocence maimed by an act of Evil; in Britain, 7/7 rather less so, in part, perhaps because of unease over the police killing (almost, execution) of innocent suspect, Jean Charles de Menezes. But tokenism , and the battle to shape and define lasting symbols is central to the war between PR and anti-PR.

Eighth, mythology. This is tokenism carved in stone. The Hindenberg disaster was not an act of terror. But the same principles apply. The lasting mythology, supported by dramatic , horrendous, uncompromising imagery, turned the entire world against a form of transportion which until then had been full of purpose and possibility. Terrorists work to shape that lasting mythology. Those working against them have to counter that purpose. But too often this defensive process is accidental, incidental, without shape or strategy.

But if the Hindenberg imagery killed an industry, the potential power of visual imagery in the 21st century is a million times greater. Social networks, and universal camera phones mean that an act of terror in Boston can be filling television and computer screens in Tokyo within minutes. It’s been widely reported that when al Qaeda or other groups in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria bomb troops or public places, very often the attack will be filmed and uploaded to the web. Arabic- and Pashto-language websites exist to distribute them – since YouTube operates a censor – to an audience of mainly young people interested in watching the footage. And footage is in demand in the West, too.

For both audiences – the supportive and the critical – the attack footage is important because of what it represents subjectively. The objective content of the attack is obviously important, as it provides the basis from which a subjective meaning can grow: the attack has to happen before we can begin interpret its symbols. But it’s the subjective content that gives the video (or, sometimes, the image) its irresistible gravitational pull.

A public act of terror – transmitted to us so viscerally and digestibly in visual form – takes on meanings for each viewer that extend beyond the attack itself. And what we can be sure of, today, is that most of the groups launching these attacks understand the importance of these multiple, subjective meanings: they understand their capacity to unify, to provoke (perhaps to provoke over-reaction), to intimidate and to inspire. Those who understand the subtlety of their macabre work also understand the risks, including the risk of over-reaching and thereby appalling their own supportive or wavering constituencies.

To return to the Boston Marathon, there are a few puzzling characteristics. Firstly, the timing. Because the attacks came so late after the elite racers had finished, there were fewer media cameras trained on the finish line area, so the impact was lessened, both in terms of the visual record, and of course in that the “celebrity athletes” had long left the scene, along with most of the media. Images of post-attack suffering and reactions have been plentiful – but images of the attacks themselves have been sparse (though much repeated)
Secondly, the target is puzzling. Analysts will be asking what makes a running race into a target: what can it symbolise to the intended victims, and what does it symbolise to those who might be hoped to support the attack? It’s a non-military target; it is not a high-profile commercial target; the race is not an icon of national unity. Like the 7/7 attacks in London, it may aim to expose the susceptibility of quotidian life to disruption, and to create a discomfort and fear for one’s own safety that extends into the everyday routines – into commuting, or into regular sporting events. But that purpose is far from clear, and divorced from any strategic narrative, lacks purpose in itself. Interestingly, too, there appears to have been little in the way of authoritative claims of “credit” from established and recognised groups, and the perpetrators do not appear to have attempted to position their act within any kind of coherent (albeit twisted) narrative. To me, most of the signs point towards a disorganised, unstructured action by an unbalanced individual, or a small number of individuals, with little strategy or organised purpose other than the expression of some malformed, personal need.

If the attacks themselves are all about symbolism and meaning, how do the authorities reply? They will respond with symbolism of their own, in good time. But first, using verbal or written statements, they will attempt to meet the symbolism of the attack with the framing, explanatory power of a narrative. But will this be done with proper, professional understanding of the world of warped symbolism and reverse reality which anti-PR can create?

Narrative, or strategic narrative, is the story that gives events their coherence. For those experiencing the attack on the street, the narrative is very limited: it is one of raw experience, and meaningless danger, something that’s been well-described as “pure event”. The narratives for the rest of us follow later on: we build them for ourselves first, and as we catch up on news coverage we merge our own narrative with the wider story being told through the press and media. Through these narratives we contest the meanings of attacks and of their images, and with them we attempt to influence others’ views of the events.

Narratives are the structures we use to understand attacks, and a leader or public figure will always attempt to influence those structures in the wake of an attack like this.
But there are limits to how far we can persuade. One of the lessons of the First World War was that you can’t spin narratives that are wildly different from reality: a narrative of heroism and honourable struggle can’t be maintained when audiences know the reality of carnage, of the “hell where youth and laughter go”. That war brought on a rebirth of irony, as it offered onlookers a way to understand the vast gap between ugly truth and censored narrative.

By contrast, the reactions of the Boston Mayor and of President Obama have been cautious, though the President was more forward in promising justice, and eventual knowledge of who was behind the attacks. Obama also hesitated to label the event a terrorist attack – though he didn’t designate it as criminality, either, as the FBI has. President Obama has interpreted the attacks as a chance for unity in Boston, a chance to “pull together, take care of each other, and move forward as one proud city” – a rather stoical approach.

As the attackers deliver the events, images and videos – carrying a slightly different significance for each onlooker – it’s the responder’s immediate challenge to deliver a framework for interpretation. Their own images and events may follow – tanks absurdly parks outside Heathrow in 2003 or anti-air artillery on Westminster Bridge in 1938, for example. But those images can be and should be managed within a strategy of carefully managed narrative.

Framing these narratives is difficult: the task is not simply crisis management. It is PR as a weapon of war. It demands true understanding of the techniques and implications of black, grey and white propaganda. It pitches PR against anti-PR in a strange world of constructed realities. Some Presidents and Prime Ministers may have their in-house experts. Mayors don’t tend to (though this one has done a fairly good job), and corporations, public bodies and individuals almost never do. This PR isn’t the daily bread sort: it’s very rarely needed, but when it is needed, it has to be delivered fast and expertly.

Terence Fane-Saunders and Frankie Evans

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