Inoculation Messages: An Effective Pre-Crisis Communication Strategy for Government Agencies
Washington, DC — For more than two hundred years, medical vaccines have served as a leading form of resistance to viruses and other diseases. Now, Communication scholars have new research to show how the theory of vaccines and inoculation can be used to increase confidence in government agencies tasked with protecting our nation, such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and to build community resilience in the aftermath of violent public attacks.
Bobi Ivanov, Ph.D., of the University of Kentucky, joined a team of other researchers to conduct a four-phase experiment with 355 participants to explore how they would respond to a violent attack, using a fictional example of an airline explosion that had killed hundreds of passengers.
According to Ivanov, “‘Healthy’ individuals—with the ‘right’ belief system, attitudes, ideas, or behaviors—could be ‘injected’ with an effective pre-emptive message designed to motivate individuals to strengthen their defences 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 counter-arguing.”
Specifically, the study explored:
- 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 of dealing with national crises, and
- Participant belief that failure of previous politically motivated violent acts was due to the skill and competence of security officials.
Participants were exposed to messages contained in simulated news releases and statements from the DHS, such as, “We realize that the relentless nature of terrorists makes the possibility of an attack ever present. The fact remains that DHS and our government have done a remarkable job of preventing such attacks from occurring and will continue to do so regardless of what the future holds.”
Researchers found that individuals who had been exposed to inoculation messages had more confidence in the DHS to prevent violent acts and to minimize the effect of successful violent acts, and that they were personally able to better adjust in the aftermath of an attack. But the study also found that inoculation messaging did not lead to greater belief that the government security officers were responsible for failed attempts of violent acts, or to a lower level of fear of flying immediately following an airline attack.
The authors of the study believe that inoculation messaging can serve as an effective pre-crisis strategy for governmental organizations, not only for violent acts against the public, but for national crises in general.
Ivanov’s article is featured in the latest issue of NCA’s Communication Currents (Volume 11, Issue 6), which includes several other translated articles from Communication scholars. The full study, published in the National Communication Association’s Journal of Applied Communication Research, can be viewed here.
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