Speed, Use of Social Media Outlets Are Keys to Crisis Communication, Study Shows

May 13, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — Organizations communicating health and safety information during a crisis need to respond quickly and in common terms when communicating to the public, otherwise audiences will seek information elsewhere, according to a study by a University of Texas at Austin researcher.

"Thanks to the Internet and social media applications, such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter, the public is able to seek and share information quickly during a health or safety crisis," said Keri Stephens, assistant professor of communication studies at The University of Texas at Austin. "If an organization involved in the crisis doesn't provide information quickly and clearly, the public will turn to third-party sources to fill the vacuum—and that information may not be accurate."

The study, published in this month's issue of Journal of Public Relations Research, was co-authored by Stephens and Patty Malone, assistant professor of human communication studies at California State University Fullerton.

The study, conducted during a 2007 pet food recall, examined the types of social support messages desired by pet owners, the type of information shared by pet food companies and how these messages varied across a variety of new media, such as Web sites and blogs.

The research findings have an impact on communication professionals planning for a crisis. In order to ensure a voice in the discussion, the company needs to communicate quickly, the researchers said.

According to Stephens, communication professionals should no longer gear press releases only toward the media. They should be written for the public, which is now linking to organizational press releases in blogs and on social media sites, and consider including dialogic links, or hot links, to Web sites where audiences can go for in-depth explanations of technical and scientific information.

"Emotions are high during a crisis and people find comfort in information—regardless of the quality of that information," said Stephens. "The swine flu situation was an example of this. Thousands of people turned to Twitter to query each other and share news of the latest developments in Mexico and the U.S. Twitter status updates ranged from 'Could it be germ warfare?' to 'Don't eat pork from Mexico.' Fortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did a good job of communicating quickly and clearly."

For more information, contact: Erin Geisler, KUT Radio, Moody College of Communication, (512) 475-8071; Keri Stephens, 512-471-0554.