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A Guide for Mayors: Preventing and Responding to Hate, Extremism & Polarisation

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Chapter 3: Response

In times of crisis, people look to their elected leaders and government institutions for guidance. In the case of a hate- or extremism-motivated attack, mayors will be expected or called upon to lead their city’s response to manage the immediate fallout while also planning for intermediate- and long-term responses to secure their city, support their residents and ensure it builds back stronger and more resilient. Mayors and other local officials must often take quick decisions in the face of uncertainty to avoid missteps that could erode multi-agency or citizen trust or derail future recovery efforts.

The absence of strong and visible mayoral leadership in a post-attack environment can reduce trust in the mayor’s ability to lead the city and the local government’s ability to handle crises. For example, according to a city official in Oslo, Norway, in the aftermath of the 2011 attacks in Oslo and Utøya, “mayoral leadership inspired trust that the system
was working”. 

In today’s complex information and threat environment, it is necessary to have plans in place for pooling resources across agencies, countering the likelihood of mass panic and/or retaliatory violence, navigating the online space and effectively communicating with survivors and their networks who are directly impacted.

This chapter focuses on the key points that a mayor will need to consider as they chart out an effective and sensitive response following a hate- or extremism-motivated attack, including:

  • Coordination between local actors, as well as with national response teams, to meet the varied local needs while minimising duplication. 
  • Communication with the public to prevent panic, keep them informed about the incident and the city’s response, and minimise space for misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy narratives.
  • Different means of providing support and comfort to residents, giving particular attention to communities that have been directly targeted by the attack. 
  • Strategies to mitigate fallout in the medium- to long-term. 

Above all, a mayor should work to enhance trust and build unity between the population and local authorities. This will lay the groundwork for subsequent efforts. 

In the first moments after an attack

Take a moment. 
The next few hours will be difficult. Take a moment to prepare yourself mentally and physically. While it may seem trivial, it is essential to find the right mindset to make rational decisions under pressure

Analyse the situation. 
Get a complete picture as possible of the attack: 
• Is there an ongoing security risk? 
• How could the situation potentially escalate? 
• Which emergency actors are on the ground? 
• Do certain communities or institutions need immediate protection?

Check the chain of command. 
Make sure you know and have communicated the chain of command, so all teams are aware of and respect each other’s roles. Identify clear hierarchies for decision-making, timeframes for updates and a spokesperson to streamline public messaging.  

Identify priorities.
Clear priorities will guide and justify your next steps. Make sure you communicate these priorities internally and to the public. Ensure future decision-making is consistent with these principles.  

Coordinating the local response

A hate- or extremism-motivated incident typically triggers a wide range of responses and responders, both from the local and national levels. Each will have an important role to play, but they can only work effectively if their efforts are coordinated so they complement each other without contradiction or duplication. As the most senior local leader, a mayor is oftenest placed to coordinate a multi-agency effort to provide support locally and liaise with national agencies to lead a single cohesive response. 

Too often, national governments dictate post-crisis responses to the exclusion of local governments, even though it is the mayor and local leaders who the city’s residents will look to for information and support. Even where a mayor does not have an explicit response mandate, it is critical that they can assert their leadership to spearhead the response effort.

Lead from the ground

Once an incident has been neutralised, mayors should be on the ground wherever possible to consult with survivors, bereaved families, first responders and community leaders to identify gaps in response, psychosocial and other needs. 

The most notable actions we have undertaken, which had a direct impact on countering terrorist operations and positively influencing the people, is that we made sure to be an integral part of the community. This meant being present now at the event with our community to provide support and strengthen their resilience, as well as directing everyone towards finding real solutions to the problem.

Mayor Ibrahim Khalil Awsaj, City of Ramadi, Iraq

A mayor should help ensure that everyone knows their role and have what is needed to perform it. When assigning roles and responsibilities, consider if there are individuals who will be better placed to liaise with certain communities. 

Following the 2013 marathon bombing in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, Mayor Thomas Menino formed part of the unified command centre that oversaw the city’s response. Utilising this multi-agency structure, the mayor was able to assign roles and responsibilities for different aspects of the response, and craft clear, concise and unified messages to be delivered by the mayor and other city leaders. This helped ensure consistent messaging shaped by multiple local government agencies and emergency responders.  

Coordinate with national government responders

In most cases, an extremism or hate-motivated attack will trigger a response from the national government, as well as state, provincial or regional-level agencies where relevant. Having this support is critical for response, but it can create coordination challenges, especially where the national response does not immediately align with local needs. Part of a mayor’s role will include coordinating with these different agencies and advocating for the needs of their constituents, serving as a buffer where necessary between national and local actors on the ground. In doing so, a mayor should be mindful that voices at other levels do not drown out local voices and overshadow their perspectives, concerns and needs.

Communicating with the public

By taking a proactive role in communicating with the public, the mayor can shape the narrative to promote unity, resilience, and community support. Effective management of disinformation ensures that reliable information reaches the public, mitigating panic and facilitating a coordinated response

Representative, City of Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Following an extremism or hate-motivated attack, mayors should be at the forefront of public communications. These initial communications set the tone for response and can help mitigate additional fallout from misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy narratives. Fear and uncertainty create fertile breeding grounds for misinformation as well as disinformation from malicious actors who wish to take advantage of the situation to spread hate. This can undermine the response effort by spreading panic or fuel polarisation that can critically damage social cohesion and lead to further violence in the future. It is crucial, therefore, that a mayor help the city stay ahead of such threats by communicating clearly, frequently and early to set the official narrative for the event and calm uncertainties insofar as possible.  

In general, the mayor should advocate that the city shares as much as possible to avoid the spread of rumours and misinformation and disinformation within the bounds of relevant security or information-sharing protocols. Even if there are no immediate updates, it is crucial to outline the steps being taken and any barriers to actions or causes for delay. Being seen as transparent is the cornerstone of trust.

A mayor should remember three key principles for post-incident communications:

  • Accessibility: Communication should be plain and straightforward as much as possible. Avoid jargon, keep messaging succinct and provide translation – including sign language interpretation – wherever needed, depending on the community’s composition. 
  • Balance: Messaging should balance the need to inform – and reduce space for conspiracy narratives – with the need to minimise fear and post-crisis intercommunal tensions. Focus on the city and its communities rather than on perpetrator(s) and avoid militaristic and other loaded rhetoric in favour of language that emphasises unity and resilience as a means of recovery. 
  • Transparency: Leaders should be transparent about the city’s response. This is crucial for maintaining credibility with and the trust of affected communities. As the city identifies lessons learned from its response, these should be shared with the public.


Interview with Nancy Rotering, Mayor of Highland Park, USA

Phases of post-incident communication

There are three primary phases of post-incident communication. Communications should align with the priorities set following the attack and be consistent across the phases to provide messaging that informs, reassures and builds trust. 

Phase 1: Immediate reaction and engagement

Whether in person or through their team, the mayor will need to ensure that the city’s residents are informed about the situation and the city’s response, managing insecurity and expectations. In the immediate aftermath of an attack or during a crisis, it is important to focus on providing safety guidance, as well as official updates on the event and the local authority’s response. This could be done in cooperation with local media, via the mayor’s official social media channels and/or through any other available rapid communication channels.

To help the population regain a sense of control, the information shared should be timely, clear, concise, relevant, non-contradictory, accessible to all those impacted and generated from credible sources. In the immediate aftermath, providing safety guidance, updates on those in danger and how to get practical help are essential.

Phase 2: First official statement and/or appearance

It is essential for the mayor to get their first official public statement and/or
appearance right, as people will hold them accountable for their words and reactions. While the immediate situation will feel all-encompassing, it is important to plan strategically for the medium- and long-term to ensure early communications can support future rebuilding efforts. A mayor should aim to communicate strength while promoting a unified response. Mayors have shared some tips for how to approach a post-incident statement.

  • Speak out explicitly against hate, violence and extremism; make it clear that they have no place in the city and will not win.
  • Call for unity, reasserting the city’s inclusive identity and calling on residents to
    come together and find strength in one another. 
  • Focus statements on the city and its communities rather than giving a platform to the perpetrator(s), their motives or manifesto. Avoid saying the perpetrator’s name so as not to glorify them with notoriety or martyrdom (something perpetrators often long for), especially if they are operating in radicalised spaces online.   
  • Avoid militaristic or reactionary language that heightens feelings of fear and antagonism. Recognise the profound sense of violation and anger people experience after an attack but be mindful not to inflame tensions with calls for retaliation.
  • Diffuse tensions and the potential for retaliation based on race, ethnicity, religion or tribe. If members of a specific community carried out the attack, be mindful of potential backlash against that community. 

Phase 3: First direct engagements

The mayor’s initial engagements will be equally important in demonstrating their priorities. For example, whom the mayor visits first (for example, survivors in hospital, other institutions related to the target of the attack, schools), which media outlets they talk to and the potential political allegiances that might demonstrate. The mayor should ensure that their actions are consistent and in line with the priorities they have set from the beginning of their term.

Advice from Mayor Bill Peduto on communicating following a hate-motivated attack

In October 2018, a man entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and opened fire on congregants during Shabbat celebrations, killing 11 people and wounding six others, including four police officers. It was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. Former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, now a Senior Adviser to the Strong Cities Network, shared his experience and his response decision points: 

  1. Have multiple communication devices and mechanisms that work on different sources (i.e., phone signal, ethernet, radio frequency) for both internal and external communications. During the attack, Mayor Peduto wanted to communicate as much as possible with the public, inspired by the response to the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, but the phone network went down and his public information officer was unable to use his phone.
  2. Be transparent and upfront with the public regarding the official response. Even if there’s nothing new to say, say there is nothing new to say.
  3. Be transparent about your top priorities in the immediate term to manage expectations. Mayor Peduto told the public up front that his first priority would be the victims and the families; second, those who were wounded; third, the Jewish community; fourth, the greater Pittsburgh community.
  4. Use your priorities to guide all future actions: Following the attack, there was an idea to close a major road in front of the synagogue. The Public Safety Director did not want to because it was a major route to several hospitals. As families of the victims were his first priority, Mayor Peduto asked them what they wanted. They wanted the road open, so it stayed open.
  5. Remember, trauma can have unexpected ramifications. Even if there is somebody who lives 15 miles away from an attack, who is not a member of the targeted group and has no connection to the incident, they can be affected by that trauma.
  6. Do not politicise the event. There will always be opportunities to talk about the political ramifications and legislation that could help prevent future attacks. However, immediately following an attack is not the time.

Supporting communities

As a city recovers from the trauma of a hate- or extremism-motivated attack, a mayor can encourage this process by providing personal support for the city’s residents, especially for communities directly affected by the incident. A mayor’s ongoing presence and commitment can help reassure people in addition to the direct benefits their commitment to recovery can bring. Below is some guidance for mayors to help support their communities in the immediate- and medium-term after a hate-
or extremism-motivated attack.

Maintain 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. 

Following the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing in Manchester, United Kingdom, Mayor Andy Burnham commissioned a review of the city’s response. The review found that the mayor’s personal visits to survivors and bereaved families and his strong civic leadership had enhanced community reassurance and confidence and further underscored the city’s commitment to mounting a united ‘families first’ response. The review also found that outreach should extend to survivors of the attack who were not among those injured but still experienced the trauma, and that such efforts should continue in the long-term.

Plan for the long-term by using the momentum of social solidarity in the initial days to lay the foundations for professional support that survivors may need in the future. Survivors’ needs will change over time and must be monitored and acknowledged constantly through mechanisms such as annual public meetings and open houses chaired by the mayor, professional support groups and working groups. This provides ongoing opportunities for direct mayoral leadership and allows for a sense of shared responsibility, the development of community-led solutions, an opportunity to troubleshoot issues and re-introduce existing resources, and strategies how to best to fill gaps. 

Interview with Nancy Rotering, Mayor of Highland Park, USA

Build 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. Ongoing official statements, appearances and direct engagements should foster hope, social cohesion and understanding of the different needs of those experiencing bereavement, physical injuries and emotional or psychological trauma.  

Build partnerships with those who already have trust and credibility on the ground and can be entry points for community engagement. This can include CSOs, local media outlets, private companies, community leaders and other cities that have experienced similar events. They can help ensure messages are conveyed appropriately through relevant channels to key groups, provide a ‘temperature check’ on how certain communities are responding to an attack, and serve as critical service providers in the short- and long-term.  

Provide the right resources through either an online information referral centre or a one-stop shop with a front office that engages with survivors and front-line workers (for example, healthcare, educational, security and relief professionals) and a pool of organisations with relevant expertise in the back end that can be engaged on a needs-basis. These should include mental-health support, such as confidential support lines, live chat services, and local therapy clinics. Awareness and coordination should also be conducted around charitable funds, government welfare and social support services for carers, people with disabilities and vulnerable groups, including children, youth, minorities, refugees, asylum seekers and foreign nationals. 

Protect communities from potential backlash. Specific communities will be more vulnerable to backlash than others following an attack. For example, it has been documented that anti-Muslim hate crimes often increase dramatically following Islamist terror attacks. Mayors should work with law enforcement to understand and prepare for these risks against potential target communities by including emergency plans in their response priorities.

These plans should account for how to best ensure the physical safety of vulnerable groups and prevent sentiments of retaliation among citizens. One way a mayor can support this is by clearly stating that they stand behind the city’s communities and that the perpetrator does not represent anyone who lives peacefully in the city.

Following a 2021 deadly knife attack in Wuerzburg, Germany, Mayor Christian Schuchardt spoke at a memorial service for the victims. The attack was carried out by a young Somali man at a time when there was widespread tension across Europe regarding refugees. Anticipating potential backlash against the city’s Somali community, the mayor urged that “the crimes of individuals should never be ascribed or extended to ethnic groups, religions or nationalities” and asked that Somali refugees not be blamed. 

Bavaria Governor Markus Soeder added to this plea, emphasising that “we must never answer such a hate-filled deed with hatred or revenge”. After noting that online conversations had highlighted the perpetrator’s immigrant background, the Governor asked the city’s residents “but didn’t people with an immigrant background also help in exactly the same situation?” 

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Last updated: 12/09/2023

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