Fair Warning

The following opinion piece was published in the Baltimore Sun, on Tuesday, 11 June 2002

When I taught writing at West Point, many of my smart, disciplined student authors shared the same problem: they failed to consider the audience. They saw putting the words on paper as their job, and interpreting the message as the reader’s problem. Not so, I repeatedly explained – making sure the audience understands is the author’s duty.

I am reminded of this lesson as I watch “anti-terrorism alerts” sweep back and forth across our country. Smart, well intended people are distributing these messages. But the citizens are confused and the media are confounded. Unless we change the way we announce threats, we will numb America to real dangers, lower our guard, and increase our vulnerability to attack.

But first, a sympathetic word about why communicating fair warning of attack is so hard.

The warnings really speak to two different audiences. Law officers and likely targets (like the owners of power plants or private aircraft) need as much detail as possible. The media and the public only need to know what they should do.

The warnings also convey different types of information. What is threatened – Bridges? Banks? Trains? How dangerous is it – Localized like a bomb? Extended like a city? How likely is it — Highly probable? A distant possibility? And what should we do about it – Be watchful? Add guards? Stay home?

Lastly – and this is key — communicating warning is tough because notices are released by different agencies depending upon the nature of the threat. The FBI conveys threats to law enforcement. The Department of Transportation makes announcements to truckers and airlines. The Department of Energy talks with nuclear power plants. Health and Human Services alerts medical personnel. So trying to get the right information from the right experts to the right audience is a tough challenge. No doubt, our leaders are trying to get it right. But the fact remains that the intended audiences – responsible officials and the general public alike – feel overwhelmed and under informed by the recent spate of alerts. As with a freshman essay, it is not enough to write the words – you must ensure that the audience understands the message.

What to do? Three immediate changes could help immensely.

1) Develop “parallel messages” for each alert: one with details for the experts, and another with guidelines for the general public. Right now, each alert goes only to the experts in that area. This leaves the media to collect bits and pieces from “sources”, and relay an incomplete story to the public. Instead, for every potential event, we need a specific alert for the potential targets, and a general explanation for the public at large. Our leaders need to communicate directly with both audiences about every potential crisis.

2) Release the warnings in a standard format from a single source on a regular basis, and repeat that same message throughout the government. Certainly, it makes good sense for the Department of Energy to deliver alerts directly to nuclear power plant operators. But the public also needs a clear, believable explanation for each alert from a central “clearing house,” like Governor Ridge’s office, or even the FBI. Then all related government agencies should post that same information prominently on their web sites.

3) With every alert, tell the audience what you want them to do. It is not enough to simply dump a warning that “terrorists might use small aircraft” on airports, pilots, and a concerned public. How should they respond? Close runways? Report suspicious rentals? This must be a required element of every alert.

In short, don’t just focus on writing the warning — think about the audience. What will help them understand the message and use it?

Here then is a message for those in charge of threat advisories, whether federal, state or local: Get the alert announcements under control. Make it easy to find warnings and guidance at one central location. Explain to the American people what you want them to do. Your job is not simply to release warnings – it is to ensure those warnings are received and understood. And the patience of the American people on this point is wearing thin.

Fair warning.