Communication Currents

Disaster Communication and Jumping on the Social Media Bandwagon

February 1, 2015
Crisis Communication

Adults’ social media use is rapidly increasing, perhaps validating risk and crisis communicators’ recent moves to jump on the social media bandwagon. Yet prior research shows that Americans’ social media expectations might not jibe with disaster communicators’ and responders’ current practices. As emergency response organizations continue to invest in managing online and mobile communication technologies, our research contributes insights about social media use surrounding ongoing disasters and optimizing risk communication efforts before and after disasters strike.

Anecdotal evidence shows many ways individuals and organizations use social media to seek and share disaster information. Think of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, for example. Empirical research is needed to complement anecdotes and build scientific evidence-based guidelines for emergency communicators and policymakers.

To contribute to this goal, we conducted an experiment that manipulated (a) crisis information form (the channel or medium carrying the message—we looked at Twitter vs. Facebook vs. a static website page), (b) crisis information source(the entity who is responsible for the message—we looked at local newspaper vs. national newspaper vs. local government vs. national government), and (c) crisis type (we looked at natural disaster vs. person-made disaster). We wanted to determine whether the form and/or source of nearly identical disaster information about hypothetical coordinated terrorist attacks or extreme fires would affect the way the young adults in our sample intended to behave in response to the information. Participants viewed hypothetical disaster information and then answered questions about outcomes such as their intentions to seek and share information via a variety of outlets, take protective actions, and follow government instructions. Our data generated several practical takeaways, including:

Disasters: For Information, One Size Does Not Fit All  

Research has demonstrated that the form through which a message is conveyed (e.g., social media, traditional media, word of mouth) can have an impact on people’s various responses to crises and disasters. Indeed, in our study, information form (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, website post) in some instances significantly affected participants’ subsequent information-seeking and likelihood to take protective actions. For one example, the group that received initial disaster information in the form of a tweet reported significantly stronger intentions to seek additional information from Twitter in comparison with the group that received initial information from a traditional website page. Despite such findings prompting some to evoke McLuhan’s famous claim that “the medium is the message,” our data did not uncover any single preferred communication form for seeking or sharing disaster information.

To reach as much of the public as possible during disasters, continued government and other organizational investment of time and resources in a rich array of newer and older communication methods may be warranted. It appears that no one or two communication forms (at least among those we studied here with a sample of young adults) will ensure messages reach all desired audiences. 

 Disasters: Perhaps Not All Are Local 

All disasters are local is a common emergency management phrase. In part, it reflects the notion that people prefer and trust information generated from local rather than national sources. Yet, our experiment results shed light on a complex role of information source as it relates to behavioral responses to disaster information. When it came to intentions to share information with others, participants were equally likely to share disaster messages from local government, national government, local news media, and national news media.

Comparable with how one size does not fit all for choosing forms to disseminate disaster information, our study found no single preferred source for disaster messages. Just as using a variety of communication channels is crucial for reaching an array of audience members in an emergency, so is distributing information through a variety of information sources.

Disasters: Windows of Opportunity for Risk Education (Especially Online) 

As others have noted, after disasters there is a window of time when people are particularly open to taking in information such as how to adequately prepare for and respond to adverse events. In a similar light, our data indicated that exposure to disaster information about an unfolding event may influence young adults’ information-seeking and sharing about various types of other disasters. For example, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings occurred during our data collection, so we examined differences in participants’ responses to the hypothetical disaster in our experiment before and after the real-world event in Boston. Individuals exposed to the hypothetical disaster in the days after (as opposed to before) the real-world disaster took place in Boston were significantly more likely to say they would (1) look for online videos about the hypothetical disaster if they were to experience it, (2) check Facebook updates, (3) look at other people’s blogs, and (4) email people they know.

Thus, one disaster may prompt increased attention to other disaster information, hinting at possible opportunities for educational outreach about effective risk preparedness. Such communication efforts might be particularly well received via digital and mobile media, at least by younger adults in our college student sample.

In sum, social and mobile media have changed the disaster communication landscape, and it is evident such technologies will continue to evolve for the foreseeable future. Thus, there are benefits to crisis and disaster communicators in reaching audiences in the places they turn for information, especially in the integral time period of raised attention surrounding ongoing or recent disasters. But in our study, no single disaster information form or source more consistently predicted positive social outcomes in comparison with the other tested forms and sources—even with our college student sample (a population often referred to as digital natives)—regardless of disaster type. Thus, to crisis and disaster communicators we offer caution against the temptation to jump on the social media bandwagon to the exclusion of other information venues.

About the author (s)

Yan Jin

University of Georgia

Associate Professor

Brooke F. Liu

University of Maryland, College Park

Associate Professor

Julia Daisy Fraustino

West Virginia University

Assistant Professor