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Responding to Orlando attack, elected officials walk politicization tight-rope

President Barack Obama hugs Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs upon the president's arrival at Orlando International Airport, Thursday, June 16, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. Obama is in Orlando today to pay respects to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and meet with families of victims of the attack. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via AP) MAGS OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT

Addressing the public during his visit to Orlando Thursday, President Obama took time to honor the lives lost in our nation's most deadly shooting and offered suggestions on how future tragedies can be avoided.

"These families could be our families. In fact, they are our family. They are part of the American family," Obama said of the victims of the families, adding that "our hearts are broken too. We are here for you."'

While Obama listed the actions needed to defeat the Islamic state, declaring that "our resolve is clear," he stressed the need to do more "to prevent these attacks from occurring."

Describing how it would take more than our military and intelligence teams to prevent attacks like this in the future, Obama began discussing gun control. "Those who were killed and injured here were gunned down by a single killer with a powerful assault weapon," Obama said.

"The motives of this killer may have been different than the mass killers in Aurora, or Newtown. But the instruments of death were so similar."

In mentioning the other major tragedies to occur during his administration, Obama echoed the remarks he made in the days that followed them.

As Dr. Stanley Feldman Professor and Associate Director of the Center for Survey Research at Stony Brook University pointed out, President Obama's message in such tragedies has been pretty consistent.

"The president's reaction after situations like this has been fairly clear," Feldman said adding that he doesn't believe "anybody is surprised," by them.

"I don't think anyone was surprised by his comments about the need for additional gun control," Feldman said, adding that "I'm also not surprised that opponents of gun control were immediately prepared to respond to that."

"This has been the pattern now over quite some number incidents," Feldman said explaining how it emerges in cases of potential terrorist activity and following incidents like Sandy Hook.

"In every case we've had the same dynamic," Feldman said.

The divisions that emerge following such events are what The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty calls "the new norm," following a tragedy.

"When tragedy hits, Americans stand divided," Tumulty wrote.

"It has always been true that the toughest issues are those that pit our values against our fears," Tumulty said.

"And in this tragedy, as with so many before it, both parties are certain to seek political leverage."

"Meanwhile, the country's anxieties have been rekindled," Tumulty.

Becoming anxious, Feldman explained is one of the possible responses people could have to the attack.

People see what happened, become frightened and the possibility of attacks like this happening is once again raised.

"I think it's very easy to see people being anxious in a situation like this," Feldman said.

"In a terrorism scenario, people are likely to respond with high levels of fright, anger, and anxiety in particular," Dr. Julia Daisy, Assistant Professor in the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University, explained.

Social science research gives us insights into the way people tend to think, feel, and act in response to terrorism, Fraustino explained.

Fraustino cited a study she and two co-authors recently published in the International Journal of Strategic Communication which found that factors such as the emotions people feel about a terrorist attack and even demographics such as gender and age predict how they will communicate and react to an event like the one that played out in Orlando.

Fraustino said that "when fear is coupled with anxiety, it triggers people to launch into action to protect themselves and others."

"Research also points us to the realization that people who have prior experience with terrorist attacks or who felt involved through prior media coverage are likely feeling even more pronounced emotions in response to the Orlando attack," Fraustino explained.

Fraustino stressed the importance of elected officials being sensitive to people's "emotional coping needs during any crisis, especially following a tragedy like Orlando."

"Elected officials also need to be aware that many people will engage in problem-focused coping in addition to emotion-focused coping," Fraustino added.

"With problem-focused coping," Fraustino explained "people want to find the key problem and solve it."

"That often comes in the form of demanding specific government responses or reform ideas."

"This leaves elected officials in a tricky position of needing toand, one hopes, genuinely wanting toexpress heartfelt concern and support for victims and all those who are experiencing strong emotional responses; but at the same time, people who are more focused on problem-oriented coping want to hear and see how our officials are fixing the problems, in whatever way they are defining those problems."

Best practices and theory in crisis communication "emphatically tell us that addressing the emotional and physical needs of those who are harmed in tragedies, whether they are harmed directly or indirectly, is the first and most important message to convey," Fraustino said.

If politicians are perceived as being inauthentic, skip expressing care or even gloss over that step, Fraustino cautioned they "can wind up losing the public's trust and loyalty."

Though Fraustino noted, there is a "window of educational opportunity" that exists immediately after "a disaster event."

During such a window "the public is particularly primed to learn about disaster preparedness or participate in disaster response and recovery efforts," Fraustino said.

"Elected officials want to react to tragedies, such as the recent event in Orlando, to engage the public in problem solving, but they face challenges in creating perceptions of politicizing a raw and emotional event," Fraustino.

Faced with this delicate situation, Fraustino suggested that having authenticity and the public's trust can help elected officials walk this tight rope.

"Having a prior reputation as being trustworthy, being perceived as authentic in expressions of sympathy and care, and making care-based expressions first and foremost in their communication efforts can more amicably open the door for public discussions surrounding ways to solve identified issues," Fraustino said.

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