A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

Organizational Dimensions of Risk Communication During Homeland Security Crises

Organizational Dimensions of Risk Communication During Homeland Security Crises


Project Details


This project focuses on risk perception and communication at the organizational level by exploring how communications within and among organizations affect risk management and risk communication about bioterrorism. The research examines community leaders (local health and emergency management officials, leaders of civic groups, local elected leaders) and their concerns about past interactions, particularly during the anthrax attacks of 2001. The goal of this research is to improve communication about bioterrorism among organizations and their communication to the public and other external audiences.

Primary Findings: 

Risk communication during the 2001 anthrax crisis in the United States can't be fully understood without appreciating the dynamics among the organizations that served as sources. 1. Organizations faced both technical and social uncertainties. The social uncertainties confronted by risk communicators were pressing, and profoundly affected officials and organizations of all types. Distributions of responsibility, power, and authority were unclear. These organizational uncertainties profoundly affected risk communication. 2. Organizational networks were essential for risk communication to the public and workers in New Jersey. We argue that successful risk communication in a health crisis is often contingent upon effective communication among agencies. Organizational and professional networks were essential to risk communication efforts across the country, including in New Jersey. For example, a bioterrorism task force was established in one area before the anthrax attacks and served as a mechanism that produced networks of people who trusted each other, even if their respective organizational mandates were sometimes at odds. 3. Relationships among local professional first responders and public health agencies were often constructive. Although considerable problems have been documented at the federal level, informal networks, including those among police and health agencies, facilitated communication in several locations in New Jersey. 4. Communication problems resulted from lack of communication triage, that is prioritizing the most important audiences and channels for reaching them. Size of a media outlet may not be the most important criterion for communication triage. 5. The concept of elite panic needs further conceptualizing and research. Our consideration of this issue began with our analysis of our interviews. We propose three relationships: elites fearing panic, elites causing panic, and elites panicking. See Clarke, L. & Chess, C.(2008) Elites and Panic: more to fear than fear itself, Social Forces 87 (2), 993-1014.


Preliminary interviews with health officials suggested that local responses to the anthrax attack were organized differently. As a result, the research team conducted four geographically based case studies in New Jersey, including one with a) multiple cases of anthrax (Hamilton); (b) a suspect case (Bellemawr) c) false reports of two suspect cases (Monmouth); and (d) no anthrax detected (Morristown). Because of the research team's interest in dialogue among organizations as well as communication with various publics, the project involved interviews with a range of key actors on the local level. Local newspaper coverage informed initial selection of interviewees who were asked to recommend others. Researchers conducted more than 50 interviews with public health professionals, emergency responders, doctors, law enforcement officers, elected officials, and other decision makers. In addition to newspaper coverage, researchers reviewed a range of documents including correspondence, electronic communication, and government reports. The project's interview protocol included a range of issues about risk communication, including the sources of information used by interviewees as well as the information they provided to others. Researchers also asked about how decisions about risk communication were made within and among organizations. The team probed for examples, positive and negative. START funded analysis of these data, particularly content analysis using a modified grounded theory approach.


Project Period: 
June 2005 to May 2009