Volume 7 , Issue 3 - June 2012 Print | Email
How Audiences Use Social Media to Navigate Crisis Information

image - Austin_article_2_pic_2During crises, social media provide vehicles for information creation and sharing, which often inflame already complex crisis situations.  Search for British Petroleum’s (BP’s) Twitter site to see how BP communicated about the Gulf oil spill, and you might stumble across the satirical Twitter account @BPGlobalPR, labeled as BP Public Relations criticizing BP’s handling of the Gulf oil spill.  Tweets posted include: “We'd like to be remembered as ‘The Company That Saved The Gulf.’  What we saved it from is not important.” At the height of the oil spill crisis, BP’s real Twitter account, @BP_America had more than 18,000 followers; the fake BP Twitter account, however, had more than 190,000.  Crisis communication cases such as this have highlighted the increasing importance of monitoring social media and understanding effective use during crises.

Our study built upon the social-mediated crisis communication (SMCC) model—a model that helps navigate the rapidly evolving social media landscape—to understand how individuals and organizations use social media to communicate information in the event of an organizational crisis. Through in-depth interviews and an experiment, we focused on how young adults seek information from social and traditional media during an organizational crisis and what affects their media use.

The interviews we conducted revealed that young adults used social media regularly for four main reasons: entertainment, relationship maintenance, networking, and education.  Participants used traditional media on a daily basis for education and entertainment. However, they sought social media during crises for insider information and checking in with family/friends and sought traditional media for educational purposes.  Interestingly, while some social media were useful for emotional and insider information needs, traditional media primarily were used for information needs because participants believed traditional media were more credible.  Our findings suggest that perceived credibility of the media type trumps audiences’ regular media consumption habits before crises occur.

Although participants used both social and traditional media for convenience, involvement, and personal recommendations, information overload often discouraged their use of both in different ways.  On one hand, humor and attitudes about the purpose of social media discouraged use of social media.  Participants who believed that social media were a lighter, more humorous form of communication, designed to build personal relationships and maintain contact, were less likely to use social media to seek information in times of crises.  On the other hand, participants chose to use more traditional media because of the perceived media credibility. 

image - Austin_article_pic_1Participants passively received information about crises through logging onto Facebook, email accounts, and emailed news alerts.  If friends, as one potential crisis information source, posted links to crisis coverage, participants were more likely to read these links via Facebook than going to the original sources such as the New York Times for information.  However, there appears to be a tipping point—once participants notice a trend in their social media networks of a crisis discussion they are more likely to seek out traditional media coverage of these crises.

Our interview findings provided insights for the next stage of our study: an experiment examining whether source and form of crisis information matters or not in audiences’ information seeking behaviors. Our findings revealed a definite “yes” to this question.  Generally, when hearing about crises through a third party via social media, research participants were more likely to seek out social media and interpersonal communication as forms of information seeking.  When participants heard about crises through traditional media via a third party (i.e., a journalist), they were most likely to continue to seek out additional information via traditional media.

These findings suggest that participants were most likely to use the same type of media in which they heard about the crisis to also seek information, except in the case of interpersonal communication where participants were more likely to seek out offline interpersonal communication after learning about crises via social media. Overall, participants were more likely to seek additional information about crises through other forms of media when they heard about crises through a third party.  Therefore, organizations need to ensure crisis communication information comes from other trusted sources of information, in addition to coming from the organization.

While organizations are investing more resources into social media sites and campaigns, individuals do not necessarily seek crisis information via these sites.  Participants were most likely to seek further crisis information via social media when this information came from a third party through social media, and interview findings stressed the importance of personal recommendations and influence.  Although organizations may distribute their own information through social media, third-party influence—such as trusted online journalists, friends, and acquaintances—prompts individuals to visit social media for more information.

Face-to-face communication was the most reported form of crisis communication for participants, followed by television, text messaging, phone calls, and FacebookTwitter was used the least, followed by blogs.  Although Twitter may seem a timely, accessible venue for crisis information, Twitter is not appropriate for communicating with all audiences.  For young adults, blogs and Twitter were not popular sources of crisis information. Interview participants provided insights into why they prefer traditional media during crises—they view traditional media, and especially broadcast news and newspapers, as more reliable sources for crisis information than all social media.  However, as expected, participants still use some forms of social media during crises, especially Facebook and text messages, to share or obtain insider information and check in with family and friends. Our findings suggest that professionals should not neglect traditional media while incorporating social media in crisis responses; social media should complement traditional media during crises.

To highlight the lessons we learned about how organizations in crisis should better communicate to young adults:

  • photo - Austin_article_pic_1Young adults preferred to seek crisis information through trusted sources, which included their friends through offline word-of-mouth communication (i.e., texting, phone conversations, and face-to-face conversations), online social networks such as Facebook, and journalists.  Participants were more likely to use media that met a larger number of their needs (e.g., information-seeking, socialization, and emotional support) and as a way to have a more immediate personal connection to each other.

Young adults frequently mentioned discussing crises with friends and family, indicating these groups were influential. Key influencers need to be identified for stakeholders during crises, especially those that engage in word-of-mouth communication.  The sharing of user-generated content, particularly in disasters or emergency situations, may help to spread information the organization wishes to share.  Thus, organizations should consider creating mechanisms to support information sharing and identify key influencers in advance.

To guide strategic crisis management, managers need to incorporate differing types of media and crisis information sources, as well as the spectrum of crisis communication phases, rather than just crisis response. In particular, key audiences’ media consumption habits need to be considered in addition to the media seen as most credible during crises.

Lucinda Austin is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communications at Elon University, Elon, NC, USA.  Brooke Fisher Liu is an Assistant Professor in Communication at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA.  Yan Jin is an Associate Professor in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA. This essay appeared in the June 2012 issue of Communication Currents and was translated from the scholarly article: Austin, L. L., Liu, B. F., & Jin, Y. (2012). How audiences seek out crisis information: Exploring the Social-Mediated Crisis Communication Model. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 40,188-207. Journal of Applied Communication Research and Communication Currents are publications of the National Communication Association.


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