This summary is provided by the IPR Digital Media Research Center.

This study examined the relationship cultivation strategies and disaster social media functions that China’s Fortune 500 companies used in their Weibo posts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Results showed that both relationship cultivation strategies and disaster social media functions effectively increased engagement between Chinese companies and their audiences during the pandemic, although on different levels. This study highlighted the salience of two-way communication between companies and their audiences on social media in order to maintain relationships and foster engagement during disasters.

Content analysis was used to examine a random sample of China’s Fortune 500 companies’ Weibo posts from January 20-April 10, 2020 as well as the relevant comment under each post, as determined by Weibo. The final sample contained 756 Weibo posts from 30 companies and 553 corresponding comments. Weibo posts were analyzed for the type of relationship management strategy and disaster social media function used. Comments were analyzed for the type of audience engagement used (cognitive, emotional, or behavioral).

Key Findings
1.) Openness was companies’ most frequently used relationship management strategy, followed by assurances and positivity.
— Companies demonstrated openness on social media by reporting their organizations’ actions and frequently disclosing information during the pandemic.
Openness also positively predicted the number of shares on companies’ posts.
2.) Nearly 60% of posts used the disaster social media function of posting information related to helping or assistance, such as where people could make donations or volunteer to help with the pandemic. This was followed by expressing emotions, concerns, and well wishes.
3.) Most audience comments on companies’ posts showed neutral or positive emotions, specifically happiness/satisfaction and hope.
4.) Four relationship cultivation strategies (access, openness, positivity, and sharing of tasks) had positive effects on at least one level of audience engagement.
5.) Access was the relationship engagement strategy that was positively associated with all levels of audience engagement. In other words, companies had more engaged audiences at the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral levels when they included their contact information, responded to comments, or addressed concerns. Yet, it was rare that companies did this.
6.) Different relationship cultivation strategies had different effects on types of audience engagement. For example, companies expressing emotions, concerns, and well wishes also predicted audiences’ emotional expressions. Companies discussing socio-political and scientific causes led to conflict in audience responses. Interestingly, audiences were less likely to comment on a company’s post when the company showed empathy, care, respect, or support for others.

Implications for Practice
1.) Remaining open, positive, and accessible on social media during disasters may improve the relationships companies have with their audiences.
2.) During disasters, companies should make themselves accessible to audiences via social media by providing avenues for two-way communication.
3.) Companies’ openness and the sharing of tasks can increase the number of times audiences will share companies’ posts during disasters.
4.) Audiences perceive and respond to companies in a variety of ways on social media during disasters depending on the type of post; therefore, companies should consider which relationship management strategies will yield desired responses.

Huang, Q., Jin, J., Lynn, B. J., & Men, L. R. (2021). Relationship cultivation and public engagement via social media during the covid-19 pandemic in China. Public Relations Review, 47(4), 102064.
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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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