Determining Best Practices in Crisis Communication through Social Media to Develop Public Trust – Part 7


6. Discussion

To further analyse the data obtained through content analysis and determine its implications on the use and importance of crisis communication, especially through social media. The data was further analysed through cross-case analysis. Tables 11 and 12 below illustrate the outcomes of analysis. Overall, the results of analysis prove that the approaches implemented by individuals, organisations, and other entities involved during crises would determine public response. An analysis of the crisis management strategies of organisations and entities involved during different crises events identified in the study label the strategies as reactive, inactive, or proactive, which also determines how effective their crisis communication strategies were, especially before, during, and after the crises events.

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Table 11

The Distribution of Twitter Responses

9/11 Hurricane Katrina H1N1 BP Oil Spill Hurricane Sandy
Positive 454 182 230 43 148
Neutral 230 368 320 345 357
Negative 316 450 450 612 495

Table 12

The Cross Case Analysis

9/11 Hurricane Katrina H1N1 BP Oil Spill Hurricane Sandy
Precrisis Unkown Unkown Unknown Unknown Proactive
Crisis Unkown Unkown Reactive Inactive Proactive
Postcrisis Reactive Inactive Inactive Inactive Proactive

While Table 11 illustrates the distribution of Twitter responses to each crises, Table 12 illustrates the nature of crisis management and communication strategies applied by organisations and entities that played major roles during the five crises events. The US government could not have prepared well enough for the 9/11 crises since it was an unforeseen event. Nevertheless, the media, during that time, was highly active in showing videos and piecing together information as the event happened, which means that the public gained access to information during the crises, albeit print and digital media were inadequate during that time. Critiques of crisis communication strategies during the 9/11 highlight the importance of social media, especially Twitter, in crisis communication by discussing the weaknesses of crisis communication during 9/11. News outlets circulated many stories during that time and reports were inadequate until later when the authorities conducted investigation of the crash. Some critiques also stated that the response time and strategies could have been better had there been social media during that time that could be used for circulating real time information. The 9/11 raises the importance of applying the Crisis and Risk Communication Model and the Three-Stage model of Crisis, which should include pre-crisis and post-crisis and not just management and communication during the crisis. The same idea applies to Hurricane Katrina. Although the public entities made warnings about the Hurricane, the response of authorities was slow. Moreover, the inactive use of crisis communication limited communication response and crisis management. Even after Hurricane Katrina, people in New Orleans continuously make complains about the lack of information regarding post-crisis action (e.g. where to go for relief, etc.). Based on the events following Hurricane Katrina, we see how the authorities could apply the Decision Theory, which involves the fomration of crisis communication (e.g. post-crisis practices such as counseling and guidance, etc.) that should be constructive and helpful to those involved, especially the public.

In Table 12, the crisis communication strategy of BP Oil is inactive because the company neglected the importance of using social media, which was accessible during that time, to communicate information, make amends, and interact with the public, during and after the crises. Health authorities, on the other hand, used social media during the H1N1 Pandemic during the crisis, but failed to manage it post-crisis. The case of the H1N1 Pandemic, especially the BP Oil Spill, prove the importance of the Apologia Theory and Image Restoration Theory, the Situational Crisis Communication, and the Excellence Theory. BP Oil could have taken measures to protect not only its reputation but also its image. The company failed to do so because instead of admitting its mistakes, saying sorry, and making amends – the primary elementes of Apologia Theory and Image Restoration Theory – the company denied all claims of negligence and passed the blame to Halliburton. Moreover, BP Oil has a Twitter account but did not use it immediately post-crisis to communicate with the public, especially with family and friends of victims who were awaiting word from BP Oil. As a result, the public’s response toward BP Oil is negative.

Hurrican Sandy pre-crisis and post-crisis illustrate the importance of proactive social media communication. Although there were still inadequacies especially in information dissemination, the response of the public on how involved organisations and entities used social media, especially Twitter, to inform the public, was generally positive. The outcomes of positive crisis communication could be attributed to the prevalence of social media, as well as lessons learned from past crises.

Figure 6. The Distribution of Twitter Responses about Crises Events in the Past

As previously discussed, the responses of the public, especially toward BP Oil was negative due to the company’s failure to meet effective strategies in crisis communication. The cross-content analysis of data obtained during research proves the importance of social media, such as Twitter, during crisis communication. The events following the five selected crises events, as well as pre-crises strategies, or the lack thereof in some events prove and validate the theories and models discussed in the literature review. Negative responses toawrd BP Oil Spill illustrate the importance of the Apologia Theory, the Image Restoration Theory, and the Situational Crisis Communication Model, which highlights the importance of maintaining a good reputation or image. BP Oil’s lack of response during the crisis also highlights the importance of the Excellence Theory, which necessitates collaboration and communication with the public and stakeholders. The case of H1N1 illustrates the importance of continuous response, even after the event, to make updates, address unanswered issues, and to tie up loose ends, so to speak. The Hurricane Katrina crisis also highlights the importance of the Decision Theory in terms of planning post-crisis to help victims and other individuals through counseling or guidance. Despite the relative success of crisis management organisations during Hurricane Sandy, criticisms toward pre-crisis and post-crisis events prove that more planning should be conducted to integrate Crisis and Risks Communication and three-stage strategies.

7. Conclusion and Recommendations

7.1 Conclusion

The primary objective of the research study is to determine the elements for best practices in crisis communication to build public trust through social media. To achieve the research objective, the researcher analyzed five crisis cases.

The results of the study proved that the following practices should be part of crisis communication strategies:

1. Structure and direction in crisis communication across all levels of crises events – pre-crisis, during the crises, and post-crisis.

Structure and direction are important elements of crisis communication because with a well-planned strategy, authorities and response teams or organisations would surely be able to address the needs of the public. Based on Hurricane Katrina, many people express distrust over the local and national government due to inadequate response, especially in terms of guidance and direction on what the public should do or where they should go, among others. People must be herded in the right direction so they would know not only how to deal with crises when these events happen, but also so they would know how to prepare for it. Structure and direction could be guided by the Diffusion Theory and the Crisis and Risk Communication Model.

2. Delivery of relevant and reliable facts in an objective manner.

One of the issues raised during the 9/11 incident is the sensationalisation of news report in print and digital media, which significantly influenced the perceptions, feelings, and emotions of the public. During crises, however, the public should be informed of details surrounding the crisis, but not in a way that causes panic, anguish or fear. During the 9/11, news reports and press releases increased fear among the people, which was then directed toward innocent Muslims living in the United States. Moreover, during the Hurricane Katrina, information spread by the authorities were limited and the media was selective in choosing news to publish in print. The content of news or information spread as part of crisis communication must then be informative, but also calming and reassuring.

3. Deliver of news in a timely manner.

One of the primary complaints during the Hurricane Katrina is the late delivery of news to the public. Some of the people during the crises were not able to evacuate because they did not receive news about the location of nearby evacuation centers. Delivering news in a timely manner is important to avoid further accidents or problems in the future.

4. Implementation of social development initiatives even before crisis.

Even before the oil spill, BP Oil already had a negative public image because of its negligent practices in drilling. For this reason, when the oil spill happened, people were quick to blame the company because BP Oil was known for the company’s carelessness. Therefore, it is highly imperative that social development become part of pre-crisis not only to boost an organisation’s image but also to help in preventing or limiting the damage of crises in the future.

5. Social media use.

Most people who were present during the 9/11 witnessed the difficulty in communicating events in New York. Based on data obtained from tweets on Twitter, communication and coordination during that time could have been easier with social media. Hurricane Sandy also proved that crisis communication and response would be more efficient if the authorities can use social media to communicate with the public.

6. Interaction with the public.

BP Oil was criticized heavily because of the company’s failure to communicate with the public immediately after the oil spill. BP Oil refused to comment and even acknowledge its responsibility for the damage caused by the spill. BP Oil’s unresponsiveness during the first few days of the event created public distrust. For this reason, interaction with the public is important, as part of the Excellence Theory in Crisis Communication.

To accomplish these elements of crisis communication, organisations may adopt the following practices, goals, or strategies.

1: Carefully construct content of social media posts to have positive impact on online users and influence their views and opinions positive.

Selective exposure and media agenda setting proves that carefully constructed content influences the views and opinions of the public. Positive messages could influence public opinion in a positive way.

2: Optimize information dissemination by providing current, timely, and comprehensive information.

The public’s response toward Google after optimizing the search engine after 9/11 prove the importance of having comprehensive, current, and timely information, and making it accessible to the public.

3: Take responsibility and establish accountability. Admitting mistakes but also communication what the company intends to do or have done to rectify their mistakes.

The case of BP Oil proves that dishonesty and arrogance leads to public distrust.

4: Create or build a positive image even before disaster strikes.

The case of Hurricane Sandy proves that the reputation of public organizations influences how people view or perceive crisis management after crises.

5: Communicate directly with people. Use human resources to answer questions directly to online users. Allow two-way communication.

After 9/11, people wanted to know more about the terrorist attack. Most people used the Internet to find answers. During the BP oil spill, many people asked BP for updates. Nevertheless, the company failed to respond in a timely manner. These cases prove the importance of direct and two-way communication in assuring the public and gaining their trust.

6: Provide timely, adequate, and effective crisis management strategies.

The results of quantitative research prove the importance of adequate, timely, and effective crisis management strategies. While people criticized the government’s slow management of Hurricane Katrina, others commended the developments in rehabilitation and the amount of help received by the victims over the years. In addition, public opinion change after seeing the kind of crisis management strategies implemented by public and private organizations.

The review of each crisis prove that despite existing the elements for the best practices in crisis communication, past events prove that crisis communication should also include the following: 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.

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7.2 Contribution to Theory

Strategies and practices in crisis communication are supported by various theories and models in communication and the social sciences. Scholars conducted various studies to determine the elements for the best practices in crisis communication over social media. Nevertheless, existing literature about crisis communication, public trust, and social networking is limited. Existing theories and models about crisis communication follow traditional concepts and practices that focus on the process as a means of communication, thus, neglecting contemporary practices in the field, which includes social media (Fronz, 2011; Kalbfleisch, 2005). Furthermore, a quick search of the topic from existing literature yields several discussions about the elements for the best practices in crisis communication over social media, but the references lacked support from scholarly sources. In addition, the outcomes of research would help practitioners link theories in crisis communication to practice, an aspect that some practitioners seem to neglect. Based on Coombs and Holloday (2004) and Hearit and Courthright’s (2003) research, Dier’s (2008, p. 16) argued, “The present crisis communication literature has fundamentally failed to develop a theory-based connection between the context or situation associated with a crisis and the crisis communication messages used by organizations”. The research would fill these gaps in literature through the development of a crisis communication model that embodies the elements for the best practices based on cases of previous events or incidents that would be reviewed through case analyses method.

7.3 Contribution to Practice

Despite well-tested and effective crisis communication strategies, some public and private institutions still fail to follow and implement them, which lead to negative feedback and bad reputation. In addition, these organizations fail to meet the needs of the public due to lack of information, access to information, and a weak crisis communication plan or strategy (Coombs & Holladay, 2012; Fearn-Banks, 2010; Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 2003). The outcome of the research, which would yield information about effective strategies or practices in crisis communication over social media to build public trust, could be used as a benchmark for organizations when developing their crisis communication plans.

  1. There is a lack of shared definition of organizational crisis
  2. Further theoretical conceptualizations on crisis communication are all needed to organize scattered concepts into a more meaningful framework
  3. Audience-orientation to crisis communication is overlooked
  4. Current crisis studies are microminded and incident-specific, lacking conceptualization
  5. Crisis communication studies in non-Western cultures are scarce
  6. Conception of crisis communication is dominated by and unchallenged in a Western oriented paradigm

Source: Kalbfleisch (p. 276)

Existing theories about crisis communication are adequate. The primary issue, however, is the application of such theories and integration to practice. Therefore, we suggest the application of multiple theories – the Apologia Theory, Image Restoration, etc. – into practice. Table 1 below illustrates the three-stage model and how the various theories and models could be applied in different stages.

Table 13.

Application of Multiple Theories of Crisis Communication in Practice

Application of Multiple Theories



Contingency Planning


Pre-crisis planning should include an assessment of past crises and ruminate on lessons learned to improve future practice (Application of Crisis and Risks Communication Model)

Planning should include issues about image restoration, information dissemination, and public response (Apologia Theory, Image Restoration Theory, Excellence Theory, Decision Theory, and Situational Crisis Communication)


During the Crisis

Contingency Planning

The application of the plan

Contingency plans must be adjusted during the crises as a response to the actual events or happenings



Continuous planning and   response


Assessment of strategies to inform future decisions (Diffusion Theory and Crisis Risk Communication Model)

Response must be continuous to ensure that all issues are addressed


7.4 Limitations of Research

The research outcomes is limited to the elements for the best practices gleaned from reviewing the cases of the five crisis occurrences selected for the study – the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Influenza A H1N1 pandemic in 2009, the BP Oil Spill in 2010, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The elements for the best practices identified are limited to the nature of events surrounding the specific crisis and may or may not apply to other forms of crisis. The researcher could have obtained more information by including other events and comparing crisis communication strategies implemented by public and private organizations and agencies during these occurrences.

7.5 Recommendations

For public and private organizations, reviewing social media, public relations, and communication theories, strategies, and concepts is highly recommended. Existing crisis communication plans and strategies were discussed. When applied to contemporary crisis communication, traditional strategies fail to meet the standards and expectations of the public. Moreover, they do not clearly illustrate how social media can be used for crisis communication and to develop public trust. Based on the qualitative data obtained from the study, theories and ideas from other types of studies in other related fields (e.g. communication, public relations, social media, etc.) offer valuable insight on how to improve the practice of crisis communication. As long as the research topic involves media and communication, crisis communication practitioners should consider testing and adopting theories if effective and applicable.

A recommendation for future research is the expansion of the research cases. For instance, future research could explore other crisis occurrences aside from the ones selected in the study. In recent years, the number of shooting incidents escalated. Researchers could focus on identifying if social media networks play an important role in facilitating communication during these unfortunate times. Moreover, future research could also include public response from other social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace or blog entries. An important aspect of the research study is the analysis of crisis events even before Twitter was invented. The research should also combine quantitative data into future study, such as the changes in public responses toward the crisis and crisis management efforts over time. Future studies should discuss whether public response shifted from positive and negative, or in other words, if public trust or distrust developed over time, and what current events led to these changes.

Future research could also review how social media changed crisis communication over time, highlighting the positive impact of social media, and improvements on how it is used by public and private organizations in crisis communication. Other studies could also focus on the future of crisis communication considering developments in social media and trends on how people use social media networks to communicate and share information. A current trend in crisis communication is the use of social media to post links about charitable causes and other efforts especially by non-profit organizations to encourage users to help contribute to victims of crisis. Future research studies could seek to determine whether the use of Twitter or other social networking sites to promote a socially oriented movement to address the outcomes of crisis is effective.


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