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 of that information. Preliminary interviews with health officials suggested that local responses to the anthrax attack were organized differently, therefore this project examined four locales in New Jersey that had differing experiences during this crisis. The study found that organizations faced both technical and social uncertainties, organizational networks were essential for risk communication to the public and workers in New Jersey, relationships among local professional first responders and public health agencies were often constructive, and communication problems resulted from lack of "communication triage." Finally, the concept of "elite panic" needs further conceptualizing and research.
The project resulted in five key findings:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Preliminary interviews with health officials suggested that local responses to the anthrax attack were organized differently. As a result, we conducted four geographically based case studies in New Jersey, including one with a) multiple cases of anthrax (Hamilton); (b) a suspected case (Bellemawr) c) false reports of two suspected cases (Monmouth); and (d) no anthrax detected (Morristown). Because of our interest in dialogue among organizations as well as communication with various publics, we sought to interview a range of key actors on the local level. Local newspaper coverage informed our initial selection of interviewees who were asked to recommend others. We 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, we reviewed a range of documents including correspondence, electronic communication, and government reports. Our 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. We also asked about how decisions about risk communication were made within and among organizations. We probed for examples, positive and negative. START supported our analysis of these data, particularly content analysis using a modified grounded theory approach.