What is OKAI about?

Mai 2023

Film "Project OKAI" | Duration 2"12' | Production Ute Seitz // Philipp Offermann | PRIF 2023

How can Muslim organisations respond to Islamist terrorist attacks? That is the question addressed by the research project "Optimised crisis communication after attacks with Islamist background in Germany" (OKAI). In an interview with RADIS, Prof. Sabrina Hegner describes the research project's approach and provides practical tips for crisis communication for Muslim organisations.

What is the project OKAI about?

Sabrina Hegner:Our research project OKAI is primarily concerned with communication strategies that Muslim organisations can use to counteract negative sentiments in the wake of terrorist attacks with an Islamist background. The question is whether and how Muslim organisations should position themselves.

After Islamist attacks, there is increased hostility towards Muslims. What conflicts do Muslim communities face?

Sabrina Hegner: As we have learned from workshops with the communities and seen in the research, the communities are faced with the problem that they sometimes receive different recommendations and do not know how they should react - calm restraint or a firm position? In fact, this has not been specifically addressed in the research to date.

A consistent finding from the empirical studies in our project is that taking a stand makes a lot of sense. The response of Muslim organisations has a positive effect. So we recommend a firm positioning.

What was your methodological approach?

Sabrina Hegner: In communication studies, there is substantial research on crisis communication, which, however, has so far focused on commercial companies. The communication of religious organisations constitutes a research gap. We explored whether these communication theory approaches can also be applied to Muslim organisations.

On the one hand, we analysed statements made by Muslim organisations after actual attacks with an Islamist background, and on the other hand, we conducted experiments to examine the effects on the German population. We examined which aspects are mentioned particularly frequently in statements and how this is compatible with the recommendations in the theory. In several series of experiments, we adapted the texts of the statements, tested them on different experimental groups and analysed the reactions to them.

Could you say more about the setup of the experiment?

Sabrina Hegner:We designed newspaper clippings that reported on a fictitious attack in Berlin. These newspaper clippings contained different statements from organisations. Participants were randomly assigned to a particular statement and, after reading it, filled out a questionnaire that included attitudes toward the organisation, and prejudices toward Muslims and Islam. By randomly assigning respondents, it is possible to ensure that variations in data regarding attitudes can be attributed to the statements. Participants were recruited through an online panel. This allowed us to survey over a thousand individuals who are representative with regard to some relevant characteristics.

What communication strategies can be considered by Muslim organisations?

Sabrina Hegner: Communication research points to four main strategies. The first strategy is "denial," in which one denies the crisis and one's own role in it. In the second strategy, "diminishing," one downplays the relevance of the crisis. The third strategy is called "rebuild." This is a clear statement of "we're sorry about what happened here". One apologizes and shows a certain degree of acceptance. The fourth strategy is "bolstering," which is actually an extra strategy that is usually mentioned in combination with the others. This involves calling attention to past positive accomplishments. In addition to these active communication strategies, there is also the deliberate non-response to inquiries in the sense of "no comment".

Crisis communication research predicts that "rebuild" is the best method. However, the theory cannot be directly applied to Muslim organisations, as the Muslim organisations have not instigated Islamist terrorist attacks and are ultimately victims in this crisis themselves.

Our experiments show that the "no comment" statement is the worst possible option. In such cases, the perception of the Muslim organisation and of Muslims in general has significantly shifted to the negative. But even completely not commenting at all has had a negative effect. On the other hand, we found only minimal differences between the different active communication strategies. Thus, it does not matter so much which communication strategy one chooses and what one says, as long as Muslim organisations express their disapproval of an attack and show empathy toward the victims.

How much does the effect of a statement depend on the preconceptions with which a person approaches it?

Sabrina Hegner:We examined whether there are different effects of crisis communication depending on whether there is a fundamentally positive or negative attitude toward Muslims. We could not, however, detect a difference. When the Muslim organisation speaks out, it always has a positive effect, regardless of whether the participants had a negative or positive attitude toward Muslims beforehand.

Are stereotypes, after all, not as firmly ingrained as you might think?

Sabrina Hegner:It is fair to say that stereotypes are firmly ingrained. One statement alone cannot erase all prejudices against Muslims. But if Muslim organisations become more visible, the positive effect of statements can possibly become established in the long term and thus actually help the general image of Muslims.

What role does a collective responsibility attributed to Muslims play?

Sabrina Hegner:Collective attributions of blame correlate with attitudes toward Muslim organisations, Muslims, and Islam. These attributions are automatic and lead to other effects. Unfortunately, for example, it is increasingly concluded that a terrorist attack is caused by the Muslim faith, and the responsibility is assigned to Muslim communities without differentiating between the two. Where organisations participate in discourses, this can certainly be rattled. In this way, we are pulled out of our previous, automatic thinking and consciously reflect on attributions. If this occurs more frequently, it can counteract stereotypes.

Is this an argument in favour of putting more effort into this rather strenuous dialogue?

Sabrina Hegner:This dialogue is definitely a major challenge for the organisations. Basically, they would have to be trained more and also make use of professional support in the process. Once the principle has been understood, the process will become more fluid. Supporting this process is also a key goal of our project.

How can this idea be brought into the organisations?

Sabrina Hegner: We contacted some organisations at the beginning of our project and very openly discussed their experiences with crisis communication on site. We will use the upcoming summer to enter into an in-depth dialogue with the organisations based on our findings. We are very interested in their views, since our studies only looked at a specific aspect - the reaction of the mainstream society - and crisis communication of organisations is also partly directed at their own members, etc.

We would therefore very much like to deliberate with the organisations on the appropriate statements to be used in crisis situations to cater to the various addressees. Furthermore, we know that this is a very difficult task, but we believe we can offer some useful guidance. 

More about the project OKAI