Studies show social media has ‘phenomenal’ impact on crisis communication


The April 15 Boston Marathon bombings injured more civilians than any bombing attempt in the nation since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. In the 12-year gap between the two disasters, America’s mobile landscape and social media platform has evolved dramatically, which has changed the way that the public reports, responds to and talks about national events.

Dominique Robinson, sophomore in public relations, said that he first found out about the bombings through social media.

“I heard about it through Twitter,” Robinson said. “I saw people tweeting about it as soon as it happened, and then about 45 minutes to an hour later, more news media was tweeting about it. I never heard any official things, but the news of it got out there faster.”

According to a study conducted by a professor and a student at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, within three hours of the Boston Marathon bombing, Twitter had more than 500,000 tweets with the hashtag #bostonmarathon. Using the time stamps of the tweets, the researchers were able to map exactly when and where each tweet was sent, creating a national map of the news of the bombings.

This twitter activity is an example of crisis communication, a way that information is shared when organization is disrupted and the normal patterns of operation must be augmented, said Joye Gordon, professor of public relations at K-State. These times of disruption include acts of terrorism and natural disasters, which the media follows closely.

Gordon did research on communication strategies and practices following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Social media has played an important role in her studies.

“Social media has had a phenomenal impact on crisis communication,” Gordon said. “After Katrina, voice mail would not work whereas text messaging would work, and there were a lot of people using that technology that hadn’t used it prior to Katrina. Also, there were lots of online forums that became incredibly popular, and it became important because it became a way for different people to find each other.”

Barb DeSanto, assistant professor of public relations, teaches a crisis communications course that has analyzed businesses and organizations and their crisis plans.

“In our crisis class, we analyzed 12 different plans,” DeSanto said. “They all had traditional media outlets — newspapers, television, press conferences — and not one of them had a social media plan built into its crisis plan.”

The question soon becomes whether or not social media and citizen journalism, which refers to a citizen who acts as a reporter through self-published blogs and sites like Facebook and Twitter, works for or against traditional news media.

“I think it could be very useful because they could track people’s whereabouts, and I think that was useful to have because they found the bomber within a week,” DeSanto said, describing how social media aided after the Boston Marathon bombings.

However, social media, especially in a crisis situation, is not always a positive aspect, DeSanto said.

“The other thing is that there’s a lot of misinformation because everything is unfiltered, and so what you have to figure out as a news organization is how are you going to filter this and how are you going to vet this, because it’s happening in real time,” DeSanto said.

Gordon said social media and crisis communication go hand in hand.

“In many ways, social media is very symbiotic with traditional news media,” Gordon said. “When there is late breaking news and events, what we’ll do is go to websites for people who have immediate needs for information. They will also use traditional media sources, but use the electronic versions to get news quicker. I think it’s more symbiotic; I don’t think it’s a competitive relationship.”

DeSanto and Gordon both agreed that people typically go to the social media websites like Facebook and Twitter for comments or emoting, but they typically look at traditional media for more in-depth reporting.

“If another event were to happen, the big key in all of this is seeing how organizations, cities and municipalities are planning to respond to something like a bombing,” DeSanto said.

It will be up to news outlets and professional communicators to decide how the future of social media and crisis communication mix and grow, DeSanto said.

“It’s in that mix where communicators are going to have to be the ones to say, ‘All right, here’s what’s going on in the social media world right now, this is what we have to plan for,’” DeSanto said. “It’s going to be a matter of who learns from this.”