This article addresses the challenges that the terrorist attacks on 22 July 2011 in Norway created for central government and, more particularly, for the political and police leadership. The emphasis is on ‘meaning making’, focusing on how the leaders played out their reactions in the media and towards the public. When explaining the different aspects of crisis management, we draw on three organizational perspectives: emphasizing the importance of myths and symbols, formal organization and cultural–institutional traditions. The analysis is based on qualitative content analysis of central policy documents, parliamentary debates and documents, speeches made by central actors and mass media coverage in the year following the attacks. A main finding is that the response to the terrorist attacks is characterized by complex interactions between mutually influential factors, by dynamics between symbolic factors, on one hand, and structural and cultural influences, on the other.