In a recent previous life, I was communication director for my state's transportation department. We "partnered" with the National Guard and the state's Emergency Management Division, and our director was a general in the National Guard, so the guys who love that kind of stuff were in their element.
A small but constant source of heartburn for me was one manager's insistence on placing the "Color-Coded Threat Level System" graphic in a primary position on our intranet so all 1,100 employees would know which threat level we were wearing that day.
My problem? That graphic--and the "citizen guidance" instructions accompanying it--told us nothing. If the threat went from red to orange or orange to yellow, what did it mean for us desk workers and equipment operators? What were we supposed to do differently? Sit down, put our heads between our legs, and kiss our asses goodbye? (Oh, wait, that's what you do when your plane is heading for the water.)
If we really need this information, tell us; if we don't, get it out of our faces. For more than a year I obnoxiously tried to find answers and, when I couldn't, tried to get the damn thing off the intranet. I was foiled in all respects.
Giving us that information, in that way, without telling us why we needed to know and what we were supposed to do with the knowledge, could have only one of two possible effects. We would either become addicted to threat level changes, interrupting our work dozens of time each day to see if the color had changed--or we would stop paying any attention. My money was on the latter outcome.
Man, I hate it when I'm right. In a U.S. airport this week, a loudspeaker announced that the threat level in U.S. airports has been elevated to orange. Well, um, actually that change happened nine months ago, on August 10, 2006. (What? You don't remember?) I asked friends who were in the airport with me if they'd heard the announcement; nobody had. My husband, standing right next to me, heard it, but tried to shush me. He's always nervous that I'll do something to invite more than my usual titanium-knee wand-and-patdown.
So it had been said, it was audible, it was not garbled, it was a statement containing a piece of shocking (albeit misleading) information--and no one paid attention. Homeland Security has taught us to ignore their pronouncements. How will that keep us safe the next time they have a pronouncement that's genuinely important and critical for our survival?
Americans already stagger complacently through multiple checkpoints and searches because we know they're good for us and realize how ridiculously easy we had it before 9/11. Michael Chertoff, you don't have to scare us to get us to do that. You shouldn't be trying to scare us, period. Just tell us what we need to know to stay safe, and what we deserve to know as U.S. citizens and human beings. Nothing less--but nothing more.
In my next post, I'll discuss the mysterious "citizen guidance" instructions attached to the five threat-level colors. If we switch labels, can we still tell which color is which?