Inoculation Strategies for Risk Communication Messaging

Principal Investigator: Timothy Sellnow

Other Researchers: Bobi Ivanov, Jeannette Sutton, William Burns, Paul Slovic    

This project provided a framework for establishing a set of best practices for pre-crisis and early onset crisis communication. Existing research provides a detailed summary of the best practices that are appropriate for crisis communication (Seeger, 2006; Sellnow, Ulmer, Seeger, & Littlefield, 2009). Previous research, however, has only recently begun to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies shared prior to a crisis. Inoculation message strategies introduced before and during the acute phase of crises have the potential to diminish loss in confidence of government agencies. Extant inoculation research has shown the ability of inoculation messages to increase attitudinal resistance by enhancing attitudinal confidence (certainty or strength) (e.g., see structural equation model in Pfau, Ivanov et al. 2005). Collaborative work at CREATE among researchers at the University of Kentucky and Decision Research have shown promising potential for inoculation and two-sided persuasion messages shared prior to a terrorist event to diminish loss of confidence and to expedite a return in confidence. This project was designed to continue this collaborative research in two ways. First, we continued to collaborate with Decision Research in an effort to determine the effectiveness of inoculation messages shared by government agencies through traditional media. Second, we introduced an interpersonal component to our research. Specifically, we experimented with and explored the potential for interpersonal interaction among consumers to enhance or detract from the inoculation process. From an experimental perspective, we tested the ability of inoculation to elicit interpersonal interactions regarding the topic in the inoculation message as inoculated participants indicated greater frequency of topical discussion with a greater number of conversational partners (Ivanov et al., 2012). Previous research indicated that inoculation elicits a greater amount of post-inoculation “talk”, which leads to greater resistance. Follow up analyses of the “talk’s” content showed the content of the interpersonal interactions generated by inoculation messages’ recipients to include a significantly greater number of references to both message-induced and new arguments in defense of the inoculation-advocated position as compared to the control participants. This evidence substantiated the argument that inoculation messages, in addition to strengthening the positions of the message receivers, may also serve advocacy roles (Compton & Pfau, 2009) where inoculation message receivers influence others in the direction of the inoculation message advocated position. The overall question we sought to answer was could the original recipients of the inoculation message effectively spread or fortify the inoculation messages interpersonally? We summarize our major findings in the following paragraphs.   Consistent with previous research, our experiments indicated that individuals exposed to an inoculation message prior to a terrorist attack expressed greater certainty in DHS’s ability to effectively minimize the harm of terrorist attackers. Further inoculated individuals displayed a greater disbelief that terrorist attack failures have been a result of terrorist incompetence or random change. After an attack, those individuals receiving an inoculation message displayed a stronger belief that the country should undertake whatever measures needed to protect itself from terrorist attacks and were less likely to believe the attack would limit their future activities.   The study also produced promising results regarding interpersonal post-inoculation talk (PIT). First, PIT was positively related to anger in that, the more individuals talked about terrorism issues the more angry they became about the subject. Such anger can be effective in stimulating individuals to more closely examine the facts associated with the case (Nabi, 2002). Hence, PIT can stimulate the level of thinking that is consistent with DHS’s desire to have individuals to think more analytically about terrorist events. Second, the frequency of PIT conversations was positively correlated with the willingness to visit friends, attend a special event, take a business trip, or carry on with a planned vacation after an attack on the airline industry. Third, inoculated individuals who engaged in PIT were also more likely gather in public spaces after a terrorist attack. Finally, individuals engaging in PIT were less likely to blame government officials and more likely to believe the attack was a result of incompetence or failure of government agencies and more likely to advocated taking whatever measures are needed to avoid similar attacks in the future.   Overall, the results of this study are encouraging as they add to previous studies in suggesting that inoculation can be an effective strategy in dealing with terrorist-related events. In addition, these findings confirm that PIT plays an important role in the inoculate-motivated process, which to date was largely ignored or unconfirmed. As such, PIT does not only have the ability to act as a vehicle of message diffusion to a larger population that may or may not have been a direct recipient of the original inoculation message; but in addition, it may have the ability to significantly enhance the desired message outcomes, both individually and societally.


Supporting Documents:


The unification and identification of Bosnian expatriates during the flood disaster in the Balkans

Herovic, E., & Sellnow, T. L. The unification and identification of Bosnian expatriates during the flood disaster in the Balkans. Society for Risk Analysis Annual Meeting, Denver, CO, December 7-10, 2014.

The role of the message convergence framework in obstetricians’ clinical and communicative practices

Anthony, K. E., & Sellnow, T. L. The role of the message convergence framework in obstetricians’ clinical and communicative practices. National Communication Association, Chicago, IL, November 19-23, 2014. *Selected for Top Papers Panel in the Applied Communication Division.