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Table of Contents

Determining Best Practices in Crisis Communication through Social Media to Develop Public Trust - Part 3


3.2 Social Media in Crisis Communication and Public Trust

Crisis communication is primarily concerned with information dissemination to the public during a crisis (Kersten, 2005). According to Falkheimer and Heide (2006), crisis communication mainly focuses on the “production of information – designing material in preparation for crisis, to cope with existing crisis and to restore order after the crisis has settled”. In a communications media research conducted by computer scientist, Leysia Palen and her colleagues, they sought to substantiate the idea that social networking sites are valuable tools during a crisis. After a massive wildfire in different areas in South California, Palen and her colleagues compared the distribution and publication of news about the wildfires in social media networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Craiglist, and other news websites. Based on the comparison and monitoring of news releases between social networking and news media, Palen and her colleagues discovered that news media failed in reporting specific and important details about the incident. The twenty wildfires, which affected large communities in South California was overlooked and presented as a minor incident in news media. On the contrary, people within and outside affected communities used social media networking to report events in real time and inform people about the wildfires, casualties, and other important information to keep other people safe.

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According to Winerman (2009), public and private institutions must view social networking not only as an instrument to communicate during a crisis but also as a strategic advantage to create a community and establish positive relationship with stakeholders. To prove her point, Winerman discussed the events following the school shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia on April 16, 2007. Seung-Hui Cho, an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, opened fire within the campus with a semi-automatic rifle, killing more than a dozen students and professors. Shortly after, Cho surrendered to the authorities. After the shooting, the family and friends of students and professors present at Virginia Tech during the shooting were left unaware about the state or condition of their loved ones since the news only revealed the number of victims but not their names. Eager to know more, they turned to social networking sites such as Facebook to check posts about the shooting. Facebook users who attended Virginia Tech talked about the incident online, along with discussions and updates about suspected and confirmed casualties. Through the social networking site, family and friends were kept updated about the event and as a result, they deemed the news released the next day useless since they already gathered pertinent information from Facebook.

Social media does not only play an important role during crises but also before these unfortunate events occur. Social media could help prevent crises, especially when its use not only becomes part of marketing and public relations strategies but also crisis communication plans. According to Fearn-Banks (2010), organizations would benefit from making and following a list of websites, blogs, and social networking accounts related to their fields or industries including crisis management. In doing so, organizations can determine trends and expect the onset of crises or patterns of change within their internal and external environment, and implement changes in crisis plans to make them more appropriate and responsive. In an organization’s crisis communication plan, its Twitter account, for instance, should include well-crafted messages that would be automatically posted during a crisis .

Heverin and Zach (2010) conducted a study to determine the important role that microblogging played in crisis communication in the past. Heverin and Zach (2010) focused on crisis brought about by violent incidents and chose the shooting that took place in Seattle-Tacoma, Washington in November 2009 as an example. To achieve the objectives of the study, Heverin and Zach (2010) reviewed and collated public tweets during and about the incident. For the research analysis, 6,000 tweets were reviewed. The tweets were divided into different categories – information, opinion, technology, emotion, and action-related.

To study the issue of public or social trust on a broader sense, the researcher will discuss social media networking in general. Zhang, et al. (2010) presents a broader perspective on the matter. Zhang, et al.’s (2010) research objective was to determine how social networking served as a platform for the display and cultivation of political attitudes and behavior. To accomplish this objective, Zhang, et al. (2010) conducted a telephone survey among residents in the Southwest to determine how the participants are reliant on social networking sites and how their engagement in social networking influences their political attitudes and behavior. In the study, Zhang et al. (2010) clearly defined trust based on Barber’s (1983) research. According to Barber (1983, p. 165) trust refers to the expectations that “people have of each other, of the organizations and institutions in which they live, and of the natural and moral social orders, that set the fundamental understandings for their lives”. Furthermore, Zhang, et al., (2010) emphasized that trust exists in a community where people can rely on each other and where they follow the laws, rules, and regulations that keep the peace and harmony within this community. Within the context of trust, Zhang, et al., (2010) sought to determine if the effect of social networking is similar to the impact of media content on public trust. The results of the study showed that people’s increasing engagement in social media influences their political views and perspectives. Consequently, it also influences their level of trust in the government. The results suggest that gaining public trust also depends on the people’s use of social networking. It seems like information obtained online and the people’s discussion of politics with other people, especially positive information and discussions positively influenced their trust in public organizations. Therefore, the media should focus on encouraging people to engage in political discussions in social networks.

Crowe (2010) directly emphasized that public and private organizations and agencies should rely on social media during crises. In recent years, social media was increasingly used as an instrument for emergency management. According to Crowe (2010), these institutions should continue to do so because it contributes to efficient and immediate crisis management. Before the World Wide Web was invented, people used traditional communication strategies and materials for crisis prevention. Institutions then used pamphlets and flyers to inform people about crisis prevention. Nevertheless, the content of written materials not only limits access and appeal to audience but is also, in nature, a one-way communication platform. If people read the pamphlets and the flyers, they would not be able to ask questions from experts or professionals afterwards. People simply relied on the information presented to them through these materials.

According to Crowe (2010), social media increases the level of public trust because sharing news and information is through social networks, which includes an online user’s family, friends, and trust organizations. Moreover, the increasing use of social media through mobile phones would allow public and private organizations and agencies to communicate a large population whereas traditional communication materials such as flyers and pamphlets limit the target audience for communication. Social media also enables users to communicate with each other and with public and private organizations and agencies. Communication is two-way, which makes the experience more efficient. Crowe (2010) discussed three important rules when using social media in emergency management: creating conversation, direct communication through the elimination of the intermediary, and free access. As previously, discussed, social media allows two-way communication. Public and private organizations should use this social media feature to create conversation. Creating conversations means that public and private organizations not only make public announcements or publish press releases but also talk to online users. Public and private organizations or agencies should answer the people’s questions, alleviate their worries or anxieties through reassurance, and tell them what to do before, during, and after crises. Public and private organizations must also do so directly by eliminating the intermediary. The public would trust these institutions more if communication is direct. Allowing widespread access to information online also means that these services should also be free, such as the free service of Twitter for online users.

Although social media is accessible to public and private organizations and agencies, and these institutions have established their space online by creating websites, web pages, and official accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social networking platforms, Crowe (2010) criticize them for failing to take advantage of social media as a communication tool during crises. For this reason, Crowe (2010) categorized social media use in three sections: proactive, reactive, and inactive use of social media.

Table 4.

Social Media Use during Crises and for Emergency Management

Nature of Social Media Use How to Use Social Media
Proactive The proactive use of social media necessitates the increasing use of social networks including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, among others.


Public and private organizations should use social networks to disseminate information and gather comments, feedback, and views from the public.

Reactive The reactive use of social media also necessitates the increasing use of social networks including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.


Nevertheless reactive use of social media relies on the expertise and professionalism of human resources to react or respond to public comments, feedback, and views on social networking sites.

Inactive Public and private organizations that do not use social media refer to inactive use.


Inactive users of social media essentially ignore the advantages, benefits, and contributions of the communication platform before, during, and after crises.

The three sections model can be used for categorizing the crisis management in this research. The public and private organizations and agencies looking to gain public trust should be proactive and reactive when using social media. Inactive organizations are missing out on the benefits, advantages, and contributions of social media not only in crisis communication but also in public relations in general.

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3.3 Summary

The review of related literature presents preliminary information about crisis communication. In addition, the review of related literature illustrates what we know of crisis communication based on existing literature. Crisis communication as a practice is supported by various theories and models. Most of the theories and models emphasize the need for pre-crisis planning and preparation. Existing literature also highlights the evolution of crisis communication, which involves the use of social media in practice, this can be used to category different crisis communication in this research. But the quantitative research focus on social media response after practical crisis is missing. Therefore, the researcher chose five practical crisis cases to review and analysis by using Crowe (2010)’s model for social media using in emergency management in order to find the best practice in crisis communication through social media that would develop public trust.

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