Transparency is the best defense

I got a call late Thursday night about a bomb threat at Peabody-Burns Junior/Senior High School that had been discovered two weeks earlier. We found out just in time to cover the last of the response, as the threat said the explosion would be Friday (there was no explosion, thankfully).

Interviews revealed that the only people who were notified of the threat through official channels were school and law enforcement personnel and the parents of students — not the fire department, not the county commission, not the gas company, not the press, and not the general public. At least some of that seems to have stemmed from confusion of who was going to notify whom about the threat. Peabody Police Chief Bruce Burke thought the fire department and gas company had been informed. But part of it was a decision to only notify those the decision-makers determined needed to know.

To his credit, USD 398 Superintendent Ron Traxson said that if he had it to do over again, he would have notified the public of the threat at the same time he sent a letter to parents of students.

In a crisis situation, it is best for the general public to know as much possible that doesn’t compromise the response to the crisis. What if someone remembered a person buying flammable material, ammunition, or something else that might have been used in an attack? An informed public is a vigilant public. And telling everyone avoids the problem of forgetting to tell someone who does need to know.

A proactive campaign to keep the public informed in a crisis situation also helps to prevent and dispel rumors — and the earlier that begins, the better. If people know what is going on, they aren’t as tempted to invent theories and details for themselves. Rumors are persistent, like weeds. It is easier to keep them out of your garden than to get rid of them once they’re established.

In 2010, it took a sustained campaign of truth by Peabody Police Department, Marion County Sheriff’s Department, and the Peabody Gazette-Bulletin to dispel terrible, untrue rumors about the desecration of flags at Prairie Lawn Cemetery’s Avenue of Flags. The truth of the matter was bad enough, but the rumors prompted even more anger. Because the rumors were already established, it was much harder to combat them.

Once again, transparency stands as the best defense against rumors.

— ADAM STEWART

 

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