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A Guide For City-Led Response

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Chapter 3: Public Communications

A confluence of events and trends in recent decades has made the social fabric of cities more fragile, leaving core democratic institutions undermined, and communities increasingly brittle, fractured and highly reactive. Combined with a 24 hour/7 days per week global media cycle, and social media channels that promote outrage and serve as conduits for misinformation and disinformation, the need for sub-national leaders and governments to have in place strong communications plans and protocols, particularly in times of crisis or heightened tensions, has never been more acute. 

While national agencies will likely take responsibility for security responses, local authorities have unique access to their constituents and should therefore play a central role in de-escalating rising tensions and maintaining unity across their city. Local government workers will need guidance and information on how to adapt their services in any circumstances, remaining calm and united in their public engagements despite the surrounding chaos.

Getting this approach right can be a source of anxiety for local authorities as they will likely contend with increased community – not to mention national and international – scrutiny. It is important to note that while people tend to be “fairly resilient, calm and rationale” in the immediate aftermath, in “the days and weeks following the attacks, the targeted populace tends to change their behaviours and attitudes in accordance with their perceived risk perceptions”. To ensure that local authorities shape these reactions and retain the trust and legitimacy of their residents and national authorities, they should develop and follow a comprehensive communications framework.

Although no two attacks/incidents are identical, cities can face a myriad of similar communications-related challenges in their response. These include acting under enormous time pressure, having to make do with imperfect resources, having to take decisions in the face of incomplete information, the need to communicate with vulnerable communities or residents that are ‘hard to reach’ or ‘hardly reached’, and the potential for misinformation and disinformation distributed by the news media or social media to further complicate communications.

To help navigate these and other challenges, this chapter outlines considerations for local authorities in their communications effort, both in the days following an incident and beyond: 

  • What are specific needs at this time?
  • How should messaging be constructed?
  • What and who are the best channels for dissemination? 

The objective is to integrate crisis communications into an existing communications strategy. 

Effective & Inclusive Communications

Below is a list of groups that should be considered explicitly in city-led crisis communications and engagement:

  • Communities that might be linked by some with a perpetrator, cause or event
  • Children (aged 0 – 18 years old)
  • Young adults (aged 18 – 30 years old)
  • Older adults (70+ years old) 
  • Indigenous people
  • Gender-diverse/LGBTQ+ communities
  • Rural communities 
  • People who are not active on social media or the internet
  • Those who may have previously experienced trauma or who are vulnerable 
  • Communities who are hard of hearing and have low vision
  • Those who do not speak or who are not sufficiently fluent to understand crisis communications in local language(s)

Are there other groups or communities in your city that you need to actively engage during times of crisis? 

What resources, channels, support does the city need to marshal to reach them?

Situation Analysis

Public Communications

The situation analysis will inform the content, format and dissemination of a city’s communications as it:

  • Builds a more complete picture of the attack/incident or crisis, and the required response.
  • Listens to the general narratives circulating and the key actors involved.
  • Identifies the various segments of its audience and how to communicate with them.
Step 1: Context AnalysisGain a comprehensive understanding of the event and the crisis response and be prepared to address misinformation, disinformation and hate narratives. This will help the city gather the content for its communications, as well as pre-empt questions and concerns on which it will be asked for comment. 
Step 2: Internal Capabilities SurveyStaff and responsibilities:
• Public spokespeople
• Senior communications official (ideally someone proximate to the mayor or an elected leader)
• Communications staff responsible for different channels
• Community engagement staff
• Frontline services (e.g., education, health, etc.)
• Stakeholder manager or focal point to work between agencies, nationally and locally

• Official website
• Public social media accounts
• Public hotline
• Citizen contact database (for outreach via post or email)
• Local media (e.g., TV, radio, newspapers)
• Interfaith community, CSOs, public institutions (e.g., schools, hospitals, etc.)
• Internal channels and with other agencies, (e.g., police, education sector, health institutions)
Step 3: Stakeholder SurveyGain a comprehensive understanding of reactions to an attack or other incident or crisis. This should begin as quickly as possible (e.g., immediately following an attack or incident, or as tensions rise).

A stakeholder survey will help the local government assess who else is occupying the information landscape, officially or informally, the audiences they are reaching and what content to address. For example: 

• Are there mis/disinformation or conspiracy narratives circulating about the attack? If there are, who is most vulnerable or susceptible to them and who is best placed to influence them? 
• Are there accusations directed at the local authorities or crisis response teams more generally? Are they justified or should you provide additional facts? 
• What can you do to stem leaks that may inflame tensions?
• Which communities could be targets of hate crimes following an attack/incident or during tensions?

Supporting an Internally Displaced Community

For 20 days in September 2013, an armed conflict between the government forces of the Philippines and rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) held the city of Zamboanga under siege. The conflict began when MNLF rebels attempted to occupy several coastal communities in Zamboanga City in protest of the Philippine government’s failure to implement a 1996 final peace agreement with the MNLF. The conflict resulted in the displacement of more than 120,000 civilians and the destruction of 10,000 homes. More than 200 people were killed, mostly MNLF rebels. Following the siege, religious leaders served as vital advisers and intermediaries for the internally displaced community. Moreover, as there were at least three local languages and many dialects spoken within that community, the city government partnered with a consultant on Muslim affairs, who provided guidance and translation support.

The content of the local authority’s messaging, as well as the regularity and mode of communication, will differ depending on the target audience. For example, there is value in having a dedicated case manager for survivors who can be on call as needed, while media receive information via official statements or briefings from delegated spokespeople. Decisions on how to communicate with various audiences should be based on a full stakeholder analysis. 

Local authorities should leverage pre-existing relationships with community-based partners to convey their messages in an appropriate format and through relevant channels. Posting on official channels is rarely sufficient as it requires residents to have existing knowledge of those channels and visit them regularly. 

This is true for social media, for example, where a mayor’s Twitter account or the municipal police Facebook page posts useful information. While it is worth generating as many followers of such accounts as possible during times of calm, the accounts are unlikely to have the necessary reach in the aftermath of an attack. 

Instead, the mayor or other relevant local leader should strive to communicate directly with community members wherever possible, while still promoting or directing them towards verified sources for additional information. Ideally, community-based partners would be part of two-way (bi-directional) communications with the local authority, helping not only to disseminate key messages and updates, but also to provide insight on how specific groups receive the attack and any emerging harmful trends (e.g., misinformation/disinformation). Monitoring conversations around the attack, incident or amid rising tensions on social media can inform the analysis of the situation and provide further information on:

  • Questions and concerns raised by the relevant communities that can be addressed by the local authority, e.g., related to protection and other security measures.
  • Misinformation and disinformation that needs to be addressed, e.g., related to background of the perpetrator, motives and targets.
  • Communities that may become targets of hate crimes post an attack/incident, including revenge/reprisal attacks. For example, following the Manchester Arena attack, Manchester and London reported a five-fold increase in hate crimes with a specifically anti-Muslim rhetoric.
  • Ad hoc community initiatives that would be worth promoting.


Having established a more complete understanding of post-incident narratives, the city’s communications plan should then focus on: 

Developing messaging to provide information needed to provide clarity and to address mis/disinformation and hateful narratives that can follow such incidents, with a view to inform, unite and react. 

How and through which channels (e.g., community channels, social media, traditional media, etc.) this messaging is best disseminated.

Monitoring the response and reactions to this messaging (including through continuous community engagement and social media monitoring) so that adjustments can be made (to both content and channels) where necessary to meet the evolving context. 

Part 1: Messaging

Communications following an attack or incident should aim to:

  • Ensure there is a continuous flow of information between local authorities and the public.
  • Establish trust and transparency in the post-incident response.
  • Foster solidarity and social cohesion within the affected communities and between them and local authorities.
Principles• Provide objective facts, not speculation.
• Provide clear guidance for the safety of residents and affected communities.
• Establish a schedule and a lead person and/or entity for the response. 
Cross-Cutting PrinciplesTransparency, Integrity, Honesty, Empathy
TipsMaintain trust and credibility among residents by demonstrating empathy, competence, expertise, honesty, openness and commitment. Continue your work on the ground, engaging face-to-face with affected communities. During these ongoing engagements, remember to promise only what you can deliver, highlight efforts and results, refute allegations succinctly and manage public anger and hostility by acknowledging it and providing answers thoughtfully, confidently and in line with established key positive messages.

Provide regular updates. If there is nothing new to say, explain the situation and provide an update on what you the city is doing. Silence risks breeding confusion and fueling misinformation and disinformation. Only share facts from trusted sources and address any misinformation or disinformation directly. It is better to tackle rumours head-on, exposing them as false or misguided, than allow conspiracies to spread unchecked. 

That said, local authorities should not draw attention to stories which would have limited visibility otherwise. This is sometimes known as the “trumpet of amplification”, a key tactic for those wishing to channel falsehoods into the mainstream.

It is therefore vital to have accurate monitoring of social media and trusted intermediaries who can feed back on the substance of discussions in the community (e.g., local employers; health, youth and social workers; faith leaders; sports coaches). This will help you determine when harmful information has crossed a ‘critical mass’ of exposure (and needs to be addressed), or whether it remains in the fringe but should be monitored for future spread. 

Provide guidance on what sources to trust and existing support mechanisms. If misinformation and disinformation are a major risk, consider launching an ‘amnesty line’ for people to report (anonymously) any harmful content they have seen and its source. This can help to overcome the limitations of content monitoring, since viral content may spread on encrypted platforms (e.g., WhatsApp) or those difficult to track with standard ‘social listening’ tools (e.g., TikTok, YouTube).
Principles• Keep messaging apolitical.
• Beware of unintended glorification.
• Use language that promotes unity and tolerance
Cross-Cutting PrinciplesTransparency, Integrity, Honesty, Empathy
TipsBuild solidarity and acknowledgment, particularly in the days following the attack when relief support is being mobilised and survivors and their loved ones need reassurance that they will be cared for, listened to and supported. Express concern, ask questions, be responsive to survivors’ ideas, and remind them that help is available, and problems can be solved. It helps to be aware of the stages of grief and trauma they may be going through during this time. Language and terminology used to describe an attack or incident, perpetrators, motives and targets should be selected carefully.

For example, local authorities should be conscious that labelling something a ‘terrorist attack’ will have associations and consequences. Terrorism is a specific tactic with particular motives and objectives, and the term should not be used to demonstrate how seriously the local authority is taking a situation. 

According to Tarik Kafala, Head of BBC Arabic at the time of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, “the value judgements frequently implicit in the use of the words ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorist group’ can create inconsistency in their use or, to audiences, raise doubts about … impartiality. It may be better to talk about an apparent act of terror or terrorism than label individuals or a group”.

It is equally important to be very cautious about amplifying a terrorist message or creating a ‘cult of personality’ or martyrdom around the perpetrator(s) and mitigate against one attack inspiring others

What public figures say can bring people together or divide them. The words used by local leaders in the aftermath of an attack impacts how community members respond, both emotionally and behaviourally. 

Local leaders and the governments they lead need to show a united front and adopt a common, ideologically and politically neutral message. This will mitigate the risk of ripple effects from the attack, including attempts to avenge victims through violence or to harass or commit hate crimes against individuals who may share the perpetrator’s background (e.g., ethnic, faith and migrant status) or are perceived to support their cause. 

For example, following the 2015 Kumanovo clashes, council members gathered to agree to a common message, which focused on:

• Unanimously condemning the event.
• Asking the population to follow government advice.
• Promoting solidarity across all ethnic and religious backgrounds

A Choice to Unite or Divide 

In July 2011, a far-right Norwegian extremist killed 77 people, many of them teenagers, in a bomb attack in Oslo and a gun rampage at a Labour Party youth camp on Utøya Island. The attacks left the country stunned. The perpetrator’s 1500-page manifesto would go on to be cited as a source of inspiration for future attacks, including the Christchurch Mosque attack. 

Much has been since been written about the attacks, from the perspectives of survivors, the families of the teenage victims, and on the politics surrounding the attack on the Labour Party camp. But, in the wake of the attack, the Norwegian Labour party faced a choice: whether to frame the attacks and the response in inclusive political rhetoric (i.e. an attack on all Norwegians) or emphasising the political motivations of the perpetrator and that the Labour Party had been targeted. Then-Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg (who has served as Secretary General of NATO since 2014), chose not to politicise the attacks. That decision helped frame the wider discourse about the attack, shifting the focus from an act of terrorism to a national tragedy, and a country united in grief, rather than divided by politics. 

Then Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley leads joint press conference, August 2019

Mayor, Senators, Members of Congress Unite 

In August 2019, a 24-year-old male shot and killed nine people and wounded
17 others near the entrance of a bar in Dayton, Ohio, in the deadliest mass shooting
to occur in Ohio since 1975. Key features of Dayton (Ohio, United States), response in the immediate aftermath included:

  • Solidarity and support from dozens of US mayors who have also faced
    attacks in their cities.
  • Acknowledged bravery of first responders and the community response.
  • Representatives of both major political parties showed a united front.
  • Clarity of messaging around when the next round of information would
    be released and what the community could do.
  • Called for unity: Dayton has “grit” – resilient during tough times.
Principles• Inform instead of denying, justifying or shifting blame.
• Beware of timing.
Cross-Cutting PrinciplesTransparency, Integrity, Honesty, Empathy
TipsBe candid about any mistakes and explain how the local authority is rectifying them, without engaging in unnecessary debates or becoming defensive. The public tends to have strong negative reactions to blame-shifting and it will do little to help establish trust. 

For example, former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was heavily criticised following the November 2019 London Bridge knife attack for blaming the opposition party instead of admitting shortcomings from his government and outlining clear next steps to address the situation. Despite negative comments on his initial reaction, the Prime Minister maintained his stance, which led to accusations of furthering a hate agenda and a wider loss of public support. 

Communications in the immediate aftermath of an attack should focus on essential updates, expressions of empathy or solidarity and security protocols. It is equally important for discussions on drivers of violence, consequences, liability, public inquiries, restorative justice and long-term response to wait for the mourning phase to pass. This is also true for reactions to specific attacks or attribution. While targeted communications can be used to deescalate a situation and provide facts, the audience needs to first have processed events in order to absorb communications positively.

Part 2: Dissemination

High-profile incidents or heightened tensions will inevitably raise questions and concerns among children and young people more broadly. As such, it is important to ensure that teachers are equipped to facilitate an informed and productive discussion in the classroom. 

Consider using social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube to reach younger audiences (or partnering with young activists and influencers to disseminate your messaging), as well as promoting a unique hashtag to direct people to relevant information.

Language: Do you need to translate materials or use an interpreter for live events?

Culture: Is it more appropriate to communicate in person or to use less direct channels or social media?

Literacy: Is it more appropriate to record messages or use visuals rather than provide written statements?
Financial: Available budget

Human: Staff and partners

In kind: Venue to host press conference, website to host information, public figures and credible messengers to convey key messages to the public.

Working with the Media

Cities should hold roundtable talks with journalists to raise awareness in a collaborative setting (rather than or in addition to a press conference). This can serve as an opportunity to outline what the local authority is doing, what messaging is helpful, what misinformation and disinformation they should be aware of, and to promote a ‘do no harm’ approach when liaising with survivors, such as protecting names. 

Following the Manchester Arena Bombing (United Kingdom), there was a 500% surge in Islamophobic attacks. A study conducted at the University of Cambridge, found that the ‘”reporting by the mainstream media about Muslim communities is contributing to an atmosphere of rising hostility towards Muslims in Britain”. These trends exist across all forms of media not just newspapers.

Media coverage of collective traumas may also trigger psychological distress in individuals outside the directly affected community. For example, a study of media coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombings (Massachusetts, United States) compared the impact of direct exposure (i.e. being at/near the bombings) to media exposure (i.e. bombing-related television, radio, print, online and social media coverage) on acute stress. The study found that repeated media exposure was associated with higher acute stress than direct exposure. 

Local governments should work with media outlets to explain that repeatedly showing gruesome, distressing images is not in the public interest, and that the repeated display of such imagery serves to keep the potentially traumatic experience alive and exacerbate event-related distress. Media coverage following collective traumas can also diffuse acute stress widely. To limit the potential for harm, media coverage should include warnings before such images are shown. City officials should also be mindful of these considerations when designing public service announcements and other crisis communications.

Part 3: Monitoring

Monitoring the response and reactions to mayoral and local government communications and the narratives around the incident is crucial and should inform subsequent communications. This should be done through continuous community engagement and social media monitoring.


In March 2015, six attacks that included explosions and shootings at a rock concert, cafes and a soccer match sent the city of Paris (France) into chaos. Residents used the hashtag #PorteOuverte — French for “open door” — on Twitter to offer safe haven to strangers seeking to escape the attacks. 


In December 2014, a lone gunman held hostage ten customers and eight employees of the Lindt Chocolate Café in Martin Place in Sydney (Australia) during a 15-hour standoff. Two hostages and the perpetrator were killed during the siege; three other hostages and a police officer were injured. Twelve hours into the siege, Australians began flooding social media with sentiments of solidarity and support for Muslims in the community. Using #IllRideWithYou, Australians offered to sit next to members of the Islamic faith on transport if they were frightened of being targeted for reprisal.


In March 2016, two coordinated bomb attacks at Brussels Airport and on a train leaving Maalbeek metro station in central Brussels shook the Belgium capital. Thirty-two people were killed and more than 300 were injured. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, with the perpetrators linked to a terrorist cell involved in the 2015 Paris attacks. Brussels residents took to social media to show solidarity and offer support – from transport to places to stay – using the hashtag #ikwilhelpen, which means I will help.

Lessons Learned from Communications During COVID-19

In 2021, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine convened public health and communications practitioners to examine challenges, opportunities and lessons learned while communicating with communities during the pandemic. Recommendations applicable to broader crisis communications include inter alia

  • Ground communications in reliable data and inclusive of impacted communities.
  • Tailor messaging to meet unique needs of communities and population groups, consistent, culturally congruent, delivered by trusted community messengers.
  • Spokespeople need to be credible, speak plain language, and be trained in how to effectively deliver messages in a way that audiences can digest.
  • Misinformation and disinformation must be countered quickly. It is too large a task for any one source and requires a confluence of voices from a group of organisations and media sources working in a coordinated manner.
  • Community-based organisations provide a trusted voice during crises, but during the pandemic, few had sufficient access to materials, funding or resources needed to spread their messages within communities. It is crucial to engage community organisations that work directly with those at risk and provide necessary funding
  • Bidirectional (top-down, bottom-up) communications recognise the value of high-level communications coming from credible sources that can be translated for use in and by specific communities, while also integrating the expertise of community-based organisations. During COVID-19, much of the messaging was top-down, with insufficient engagement with community-based organisations in shaping the messaging drawing on their unique insights about what communities needed to hear.
  • Consider convening a coordinating body as part of the local authority’s communications infrastructure. A centralised body can coordinate, build relationships, share lessons, facilitate bidirectional coordination and compile materials an, messaging and good practices. 
  • Some inconsistent messaging will be unavoidable due to the rapidly changing nature of a crisis. Aim for consistent messages and terminology (e.g., between national and local/subnational governments, across channels, within local government).
  • Credibility is essential to effective, persuasive communication. Strategies for achieving maximum credibility during a crisis include leveraging trusted, authoritative intermediaries to communicate key messages.
  • Listen to community needs and concerns and express genuine empathy
  • Communicate respect and trust in the public and publicly praise those on the front lines or community-led efforts to support the response. 
  • Communicate with openness, frankness and honesty. Communities are more likely to follow guidance if they understand the rationale. Access to accurate information (positive and negative) helps people build appropriate expectations. 
  • Communicate change early as a perception of obfuscation will diminish trust and can motivate people to look for information elsewhere, fostering a belief in rumours, misinformation, and conspiracy theories.
  • Help people prepare for the immediate and longer-term future both pragmatically and mentally and reduce the anxiety resulting from uncertainty. It is equally important not to foster illusions of certainty, which could lead to the erosion of trust.
  • Message framing is vital to fostering empowerment. Communications strategies that suggest people should ‘calm down’ imply that some people are in a panic, potentially creating further anxiety. “We are getting on top of the crisis” is a positive message but reinforces a crisis. Instead, to instil calmness and optimism, try “we are on the road to recovery”. Appeal to public solidarity and resilience; facing a common threat can elicit a shared sense of togetherness, encouraging people to look beyond their differences and respond with a heightened sense of collective responsibility.

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