While marketing communications can do little to offset the loss of lives and collateral damage associated with terrorist actions, it can go a long way toward shaping public attitudes on its effect: terror, which after all, is a state of mind.
"Terrorism requires a quantity of media activities and terrorists are pretty good PR people," said Thomas Preston, president-CEO of the Preston Group, a Lexington, Ky.-based public relations and crisis management company specializing in counter-terrorism.
"Terrorists are great manipulators of media, so we have to be prepared to counter that manipulation and see to it that the terrorist does not gain certain advantages. Otherwise, they win," Mr. Preston said.
Mr. Preston said organizations-whether they are private companies, governments, or even whole societies-can apply the techniques of behavioral science to counter the impact of terrorism during, after and even before terrorist activities occur.
Beforehand, he said, public awareness could be heightened to increase vigilance that might stem terrorist actions, or at least would prepare the public to deal rationally with them if they occur.
To deal effectively with the results of terrorist actions, Mr. Preston said organizations need to develop public relations contingency plans in advance of the event.
In fact, he has created a modeling system for developing such plans, including steps that assess an organization's vulnerabilities and developing responses to various terrorist scenarios.
After the event, measures focus on working with the media to manage the spin given to a terrorist incident, Mr. Preston said.
For terrorist activity on a national-indeed, global scale-of the Oklahoma bombing, even more sophisticated planning and responses are required, including ones that involve the shaping of public policy strategies. That can involve the role of public relations, but also could require the unique perspective of political media consultants who are trained with leveraging mass constituencies around public policy issues.
"At that level, strategic planning is developed by the policy people and that should begin at the National Security Council and should include all of the appropriate people after that. First in line should be the CIA and the FBI," said James Kiss, managing director-international of Arnold & Truitt, a New York-based management consulting firm specializing in public affairs and political consulting. "But at the same time that policy strategy is being developed, professional communicators should be in charge of developing a communications strategy to implement it."
Mr. Kiss said the White House's Public Liaison Office ultimately should be responsible for implementing that strategy-and that the message might be delivered by the president. But it's critical that the communications strategy be developed with the policy.
"The real question from a marketing point of view, is what does the government want the public to do about it. Do they want to generate leads? Do they want to calm people's nerves?" said marketing strategist Jack Trout, president of Trout & Partners, Greenwich, Conn.
Mr. Trout said it's possible such policies could lead to a public service ad campaign, along the lines of World War II's "Loose lips sink ships" theme. Such an effort could heighten public vigilance, but also would provide the public with a sense of empowerment.
"There used to be a day when Americans looked around and reported suspicious things to the FBI, or the local police. Of late, that has been regarded as Big Brother is watching and carries the overtones of a fascist state," said Bob Dilenschneider, president of the Dilenschneider Group. "I think we have to get back to the thinking that the police are there to help us and the FBI is there to protect us. That's a big role for marketing communications."