Smith, Brian G., Smith, Staci, B., & Knighton, Devin (2018). Social media dialogues in a crisis: A mixed-methods approach to identifying publics on social media. Public Relations Review, 44, 562–573.

Despite the promise of social media to engender dialogue, research commonly prioritizes monologue—analyzing the strategies organizations use in targeting publics. This is especially the case in crisis research. This study analyzes dialogue in crisis through a semantic network analysis and content analysis of social media interaction surrounding two separate crises – the terror attacks in Paris (2015) and in Barcelona (2017). Specifically, this study examines the emotional expression and crisis coping represented in social media content. Results demonstrate how publics may be identified and understood through semantic network analysis. This study also shows the connection between emotions and coping, expanding the crisis communication literature in public relations, and suggests the need to consider agenda-setting and resilience in crisis communication research.

This study utilized a mixed method approach that would allow us to analyze both the sentiment and connection between publics in social media content.  We used NodeXL to collect tweets for each of the two terror attacks, 24 hours following each attack, respectively. Though we used various trending hashtags to download content, the most exhaustive list of tweets were found using the name of each city as a hashtag: #Paris yielded 7485 English-language tweets, and #Barcelona, 1,022 tweets. For each set of tweets, we conducted a semantic network analysis, which examines the co-occurrences of words in a dataset and is based on the premise that words that exist close to each other are likely related. Through this analysis, we identified co-occurring word clusters. We then conducted a qualitative content analysis to examine and confirm the themes of each cluster.

Key Findings

  • For each set terror attack dialogues on Twitter, five dialogic clusters were identified, each with a respective emotional expression and crisis coping behavior.
  • For both the Barcelona and Paris terror attacks, the dominant dialogue revolved around expressing sympathy (the emotional response) and showing resilience (the crisis coping behavior)
  • Other terror attack dialogues revealed connections between hope (emotion) and adaptation (crisis coping), anger (emotion) and assigning blame (crisis coping), and anxiety (emotion) and venting (crisis coping)
  • One of the Barcelona clusters centered on sharing information not directly related to Barcelona (i.e. the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017), revealing the need to consider agenda-setting as a crisis coping mechanism.

Implications for Practice
This study demonstrates the usefulness of evaluating social media content using semantic network analysis to identify how publics congregate, and even organize, around discussions. Semantic network analysis allows practitioners to map the way dialogue develops and thematically identify strategically-relevant publics through an analysis of the largest co-occurring words.  Therefore, semantic network analysis combined with content analysis may be an effective strategic tool for practitioners to identify and engage publics.

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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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