Determining Best Practices in Crisis Communication through Social Media to Develop Public Trust

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Abstract

Social media has various functions that human beings can take advantage of in their daily lives, from communicating with other people or reading news updates. In addition, social media contributes to different fields and disciplines. Facilitating crisis communication is one of the more important roles of social media. Through networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter that could be used to reach majority of the population, public and private organizations seek to prevent and manage crisis and deal with the problems, issues, and concerns that arise during such difficult times. Nevertheless, using social media as a crisis communication tool necessitates careful and strategic planning. In some cases, the improper use of social media contributes to an organization or agency’s loss of the public’s trust.

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The research explores the elements for the best practices in crisis communication using social media, targeted at the utility of social media networks to help public and private organizations gain public trust. Based on existing literature, the body of knowledge in crisis communication is primarily grounded on “informal” studies, which refer to knowledge learned from experiences during actual crises events. This means that majority of strategies and concepts in crisis communication was gleaned from past crises, especially the strengths and weaknesses, and advantages and disadvantages of crisis communication strategies and practices implemented in the past.

The primary objective of research is to determine the elements for the best practices in crisis communication using social media to gain public trust. The multiple case study method was adopted in the study to accomplish the research objective. Crises events in the past were reviewed to determine how social media contributed to crisis communication efforts of public and private organizations, and identify how social media could have improved the management of crises. The quantitative data was obtained from Twitter posts and updates online, which allowed content analysis through the evaluation and synthesis of the nature of public response to the crises identified – the 9/11 terrorist attack, Hurricane Katrina, the H1N1 pandemic, the BP Oil Spill, and Hurricane Sandy. These crises events cover different timelines and also represent the development of social media as an instrument in crisis communication.

The results of the study revealed that earning public trust through social media in crisis communication necessitates: the careful construction of social media content, the optimization of information made available for public consumption, the timely release of updates and press releases, the display of responsibility and accountability, the development of positive image and reputation even before crises, direct communication with online users, and the adequate, timely, and efficient response to crises issues, concerns, and problems. Future research studies can expand the research by focusing on other crises aside from the ones identified and selected in the study. Moreover, other research studies could focus on determining the relationship between social networking, crisis management, and social mobilization.

1. Introduction

Social media used to be a primary platform for online communication in the World Wide Web, thus, bridging gaps and allowing human beings to interact through various communication channels. Nevertheless, it has evolved to take on several roles and functions in different areas and disciplines due to the ever increasing use of social media, the prevalence of communication and other activities through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and the accessibility of these networks through numerous mobile devices. Nowadays, social media also functions as a platform for crisis communication, and therefore, it is essential in building the image and reputation of an organization or entity (Laad & Lewis, 2012). Social media has been a valuable instrument for crisis communication because it is capable of breaking barriers, from distance to accessibility or time of message delivery to volume. Furthermore, through social media, organizations can reach millions of people around the world. Laad and Lewis (2012) discovered that since 2005, the number of social media users has been gradually increasing. Half of the entire population in the United States, for instance, uses social media networks, especially Facebook and Twitter. Moreover, the majority of the American population uses social media to watch news updates and emergency information (Laad & Lewis, 2012). Consequently, 70 percent of the population today expects organizations to post news information and updates online through official social networking sites or pages. The public’s reliance on social media as a news and information dissemination platform makes it an effective tool for crisis communication and building public trust.

Accounts of events and situations leading to, during, and after crises prove the important role of social networking in crisis communication. Falkheimer and Heide (2006) explored how social networking contributes to crisis communication in a multicultural context. In the study, Falkheimer and Heide (2006) reviewed and analyzed existing literature to identify different crisis communication strategies, one of which includes the use of social media. Falkheimer and Heide (2006) capitalized on data obtained from a Swedish survey, which proved that majority of Swedes read news published by international media outlets and access the Internet from their computers or mobile phones to do so. Falkheimer and Heide (2006) also reviewed studies in media research and based on those that focused on identifying the media consumption behavior of public. Based on previous studies, Falkheimer and Heide (2006) discovered that the public primarily relies on the media for information during crises. People pay attention to news and information published through various media platforms like social media. Therefore, the kind and quality of messages published, as well as the communication approaches employed by organizations would influence public opinion, and thus, public trust. The research study focuses on these areas in crisis communication, specifically the relationship between crisis communication, image and reputation, and public opinion and trust.

Through research, past crises – social or organizational – would be reviewed to identify communication strategies and practices implemented by public and private organizations, and other entities. Consequently, the outcomes of such strategies and practices on public opinion, specifically public trust, would also be reviewed to determine the efficiency of these strategies and practices. After evaluating communication strategies implemented during crises situations, research efforts would focus on the identification of the elements for the best practices in crisis communication through social media with the objective of gaining public trust.

The research study follows a qualitative approach and design. The case analysis approach would be implemented to accomplish the research objective, address the research questions, and gather data about past crises and the communication strategies implemented by public and private organizations and other entities involved. Several cases will be reviewed in the study, including the September 11, 2011 terrorist attack in New York and Washington, D.C., the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the H1N1 pandemic, the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy which struck New York and New Jersey. Through case analyses, the strengths and weaknesses, advantages, disadvantages, and contributions of social media networking to crisis communication and public image would be identified.

The actual research begins with a preliminary review of existing literature. The outcomes of which would be discussed in the next chapter, which is the review of existing literature. The review of related literature covers the theoretical framework of the study, which includes a discussion of theories in crisis communication, social media, and existing strategies and practices in crisis communication using social media. Overall, the review of related literature would be an assessment, analysis, and synthesis of existing studies, cases, and other references about crisis communication, public trust, social networking, and actual crisis events that have already occurred.

After the review of related literature, the methodology employed in the research study would be discussed, taking note of the research design, limitations and ethical boundaries, and expected outcomes of the study. The methodology will be followed by an in depth discussion of the case analyses and the outcomes of research. The research would be concluded with a rundown of the elements for the best practices identified after reviewing past cases or incidents attributed to effective and ineffective crisis communication strategies and practices.

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2. Research question

The primary objective of research is to determine the elements for best practices in crisis communication through social media that would develop public trust. Through qualitative research, the primary objective of the study would be achieved by addressing the following research questions:

  1. What are the elements for practice in crisis communication?
  2. How social media can be used in crisis communication in order to gain public trust?

Following the review and analysis of the outcomes of research, a crisis communication plan that could be carried out through social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, will be constructed based on identified the elements for the best practices in crisis communication to gain public trust.

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