Major terror incidents last week - crossing multiple countries, cultures, and political environments are a frustrating harbinger of what we can expect in the next year and beyond.
As analysts (and as HUMANS) we sometimes struggle to reach an appropriate tenor and angle in our analysis, especially when our timelines are compressed and we are witnessing the grizzly aftermath of an attack in real time via social media. And yet, it is in these high profile, often highly emotive circumstances that our reports are in highest demand and most likely to reach our organization’s top leadership. Here are some rules to consider when writing on breaking situations to ensure an effective, measured product that adds value. After all, your credibility is on the line.
Rule 1: Avoid the use of emotive, imprecise language
When circumstances are unclear, stories quickly emerge that report details that are at best exaggerated, and at worst completely erroneous. For example, last week as the Jakarta attacks unfolded, a mainstream news outlet’s headline read: “Massive explosion in central Jakarta.” The headline was imprecise at best, and highly emotive to boot. Is “massive” the best adjective to use? Should there be an adjective at all? What exactly does massive mean in this instance? Is this a 9/11-size catastrophic event, or it is an IED explosion, or is it a grenade? In another instance, a mainstream news outlet reported that four suicide bombers systematically detonated their devices one after the other in front of a Jakarta Starbucks. Forgetting the logistical implausibility of this scenario, the details were simply inaccurate. Both of these reports did a disservice to readers, especially those with employees, family, or friends near the scene in Jakarta. Though we’d like to think it isn’t, our writing is influenced by the sheer volume of reporting we sort through that routinely uses hyperbolic language to ensure audience interest.
As intelligence professionals, hyperbolic, imprecise or misinformed writing is exactly the opposite of what needs to be conveyed in our writing. Our job is to cut through the reporting, confirm details, triangulate against other reporting (crucially: non-media sources) and evaluate what is closest to the truth of the incident. Most important, in these circumstances we need to take a step back and consider our use of language before hitting the send button.
As analysts we provide our customers with a realistic view of the situation, based on available credible information and its impact to our organization – be it people, assets, operations, or reputation. Using a word like “massive” or “violent” or “rioting” (or any other number of words favored by the press) as a descriptor evokes an emotional response in the reader, before they even get to the body of the analysis. This should never be the outcome of our writing. In fact, it should be the opposite. Our readers are decision-makers or in some way need to take action based on the information we provide. If this information is emotive and hyperbolic, it skews decision-makers’ ability to do their job well. A more appropriate headline for a product from an intelligence analyst would read: Multiple explosions reported in central Jakarta, no impact on personnel or operations at this time. This tells the reader in one sentence two of the most important things they need to know. What happened and what they need to know about its impact on the organization. The follow-on write-up should also be devoid of imprecise adjectives and emotive narrative on the incident.
Rule 2: Put yourself in your customer’s shoes
In most cases, early reporting on crisis situations should not be full of long form analysis. It should be designed to help others in your organization do THEIR job. In most cases, the bulk of the analysis goes on behind the scenes as you are assessing credibility of available information, confirming reports, and triangulating sources. Early communications during a breaking situation should seek to communicate quickly and concisely what your audience needs to know to accomplish their roles. These individuals need accurate, fact-based information in order to make important decisions and take action on behalf of the organization. Some of these actions could be:
- CEO communication with the board, the rest of the company, or the markets.
- Corporate Communications or HR communications with the public: news media, shareholders, and family members of potentially impacted individuals.
- Business leaders who must decide whether to shut down an office or operations depending on the circumstances.
- Security operations personnel who may need to liaise with law enforcement, rescue operators, or host government officials.
- In-country leadership who may need to consider evacuation options or response to local personnel who may have been impacted.
- Business continuity personnel who may be assisting with crisis response.
Turn your perspective around
We should always strive to look at our writing through the lens of our customer’s decision-making priorities. Especially in a breaking or crisis situation, this clarifies what needs to be written, how it should be written and why. In understanding this, we can quickly delineate between the critical elements that need to be communicated and the non-critical pieces of information that are generally used by media outlets to attract readers.