Volume 11 , Issue 6 - December 2016 Print | Email
Using Inoculation Messages as a Pre-Crisis Strategy

1 Vol 11-6 F 1The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is among the government agencies that have the difficult task of uncovering and preventing violent public attacks. In a recent essay, Bobi Ivanov and a team of researchers describe how communication, specifically inoculation messages, can be used for community resilience, especially after a violent public attack.

Ivanov and his team describe violent public attacks as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” When these acts of violence occur, the uncertainty and fear of the victims creates a “sense of powerlessness” in which they are “at the mercy of dangerous forces beyond their control,” according to past research.

Using logic rooted in the medical use of vaccines, inoculation has emerged over the years as the leading theory of resistance. According to the theory’s principal author, William McGuire, to prevent viral attacks, people need to be injected with a weakened form of a virus. The inoculation shouldn’t be so weak that it fails to generate a response from the immune system, but it also shouldn’t be so strong that it overwhelms the immune system. The inoculation theory of communication is founded on the same principal. Ivanov writes:

‘Healthy’ individuals—with the ‘right’ belief system, attitudes, ideas, or behaviors (henceforth referred to only as beliefs or attitudes)—could be ‘injected’ with an effective preemptive message designed to motivate individuals to strengthen their defenses and better prepare for the prospect of facing potential challenges to their beliefs or attitudes. The effectiveness of inoculation rests on two generally accepted mechanisms, threat and counterarguing.

In their study, the researchers questioned whether these messages have the potential to be effective in politically motivated violent act-based crisis situations. They investigated the potential for inoculation messages to encourage “thoughtful reasoning and development of resistance to claims, assumptions, or attacks asserting that government agencies, such as the DHS and the Travel Security Administration (TSA), cannot prevent or respond effectively to politically motivated violent acts.”

Ivanov and his team also examined whether inoculation messages could prevent or reduce the loss of confidence in protective agencies, and whether inoculation messages could enhance the ability of individuals to cope with the aftermath of violent acts. Finally, they looked at whether effective inoculation messages could increase confidence in the ability of government agencies to handle national crises.

The Study 

To test their hypotheses, the researchers conducted a four-phase experiment with 355 participants from a national sample. The study assessed the ability of inoculation message recipients to withstand the effects of a likely violent act. The suspected violent act, presented as a simulated event, suggested that an airliner had exploded over Nevada, killing 253 passengers.

During phase one, the researchers assessed the initial beliefs and attitudes toward the variables, which included, but were not limited to:

  • Participant belief that DHS is effective in preventing politically motivated violent acts,
  • Participant attitude toward the prospect of flying on a commercial airline,
  • Participant belief that in general, the DHS is capable in dealing with national crises, and
  • Participant belief that failure of previous politically motivated violent acts due to skill and competence of security officials.

During phase two of the study, the researchers presented inoculation messages to half of the participants. The inoculation message was a news release and was presented as an excerpt from a message delivered by the Director of the DHS on the 10-year anniversary of the September 11 attack. The four-paragraph message discussed three points: politically motivated violent acts and the possible lack of confidence in the DHS; DHS’ success in preventing a number of potential violent acts; and DHS’ capacity to respond to these acts. The other half did not receive messages. In phase three, the attack message was presented to the participants. The researchers reassessed the variables from phase one. Phase four of the study used the same measures as in phase three and was intended to examine the rate of return to baseline following the attack presented in phase three.

The Results 

The researchers found that individuals who had been exposed to an inoculation message indicated greater belief in the ability of the DHS to effectively prevent violent acts when compared to people who had not been exposed to inoculation messages. Additionally, they found that inoculated individuals indicated greater belief in the ability of the DHS to effectively minimize the effect of violent acts. When it came to the aftermath of a violent event, the researchers found that inoculated individuals indicated stronger belief in the ability to adjust to what had happened, as well as a more positive attitude toward the prospect of flying on a commercial airliner, and less fear of flying on a commercial airliner in general. The investigation suggested that compared to individuals who had not received inoculation messaging, inoculated individuals indicated stronger confidence the ability of DHS and TSA to effectively handle a transportation crisis.

However, the researchers’ findings did not support the hypothesis that those who have been exposed to inoculation messages would indicate greater belief that failure of previous violent acts was due to the skill and competence of security officers. The research data also did not support the idea that those who received inoculation messages would demonstrate lower levels of fear of flying on a commercial airliner immediately following the news of an attack on an airline, compared to those in the control group.


The results of this investigation show that inoculation messaging has the ability to serve as an effective pre-crisis strategy for governmental organizations such as the DHS and TSA. The authors also point out that the protection generated by inoculation messages may extend beyond violent acts by enhancing public confidence in the government to handle national crises in general.

The threat of politically motivated violence looms large in the minds of many people around the world. When people react to these acts of violence with extreme fear, there can be negative economic and political consequences. Inoculation messages, however, have the power to offset these initial feelings of fear, distress, and helplessness and could contribute to the resilience of organizations and agencies in many different contexts. 

1 Vol 11-6 F Sellnow, Timothy, Photo 1 Vol 11-6 F Ivanov Bobi Photo1 Vol 11-6 F Burns, William, Photo 1 Vol 11-6 F Petrun Sayers, Elizabeth, Photo 1 Vol 11-6 F Veil, Shari, Photo 1 Vol 11-6 F Mayorga, Marcus, Photo 

About the authors: Bobi Ivanov, Ph.D., is the Associate Dean for Graduate Programs in Communication and an Associate Professor of Integrated Strategic Communication in the Department of Integrated Strategic Communication at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, KY, USA. William J. Burns, Ph.D., is a research scientist at Decision Research in Eugene, OR, USA. Timothy L. Sellnow is a Professor of Strategic Communication in the Nicholson School of Communication at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL, USA. Elizabeth L. Petrun Sayers is an Associate Behavioral and Social Scientist at RAND Corporation in Arlington, VA, USA. Shari R. Veil is an Associate Professor of Communication and the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs in the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, KY, USA. Marcus W. Mayorga is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon in Eugene, OR, USA. This essay appeared in the December 2016 issue of Communication Currents and was translated from the scholarly article: Ivanov, B., Burns, W.J., Sellnow, T. L., Petrun Sayers, E.L., Veil, S.R., & Mayorga, M.W. (2016). Using an inoculation message approach to promote public confidence in protective agencies. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 44(4), 381-398. doi: 10.1080/00909882.2016.1225165. The Journal of Applied Communication and Communication Currents are publications of the National Communication Association.

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