Graham, Melissa W., Avery, Elizabeth J., & Park, Sejin (2015). The role of social media in local government crisis communications, Public Relations Review, 41(3), 386-394.


Despite the enormous value social media yield governments in communicating with citizens, there is scant research on the extent to which local governments are actually using social media for crisis communication efforts.  As local governments continue to face diminishing budgets stretched time, and human, and fiscal resources even for the management of daily operations, it is imperative to reveal how social media can maximize efficiency in crisis management.  In addition, given the extraordinary growth in social media use over the past few years, it is also important to evaluate if and how governments are using this technology to communicate with publics during crisis and incorporating it into their crisis communication plans.

Using survey data collected from more than 300 local government officials from municipalities across the United States, this study examined social media use in a relatively unexplored context, local governments. It specifically addressed the adoption and use of social media tools for crisis communication and social media’s part in managing a crisis.  Results indicate the extent of social media use, but not the number of tools used, is positively associated with local city officials’ assessments of their ability to control a crisis situation as well as their overall evaluations of the strength of their responses.


In order to investigate local governments’ crisis management, the researchers worked with a private research firm to conduct a survey of local government officials (N=307).  The survey contained close-ended questions about participant’s use of social media during a crisis, the types of social media tools used, and their perceptions about social media’s role in managing the crisis.

Key Findings

  • More than 70% of local government officials (N=205) engage social media during a crisis; 29% reported they did not use social media during a crisis (N=83).
  • Facebook (N=157, 53%) was the most popular social medium for local governments to use during a crisis followed by Twitter (N=81, 27%), blogs (N=17, 6%), Youtube (N=13, 5%), Google Plus (N=8, 3%), and other (N=19, 6%).
  • Practitioners at local governments serving the smallest communities in this sample used social media during crisis to a lesser extent overall and used fewer tools than officials in the larger population categories. Consistent with previous research, this survey found that as community size increased so did the extent of use and number of social media tools engaged during a crisis.
  • The number of social media tools used during a crisis did not vary by crisis type; however, the extent of social media use did vary by crisis type. Social media were used significantly more for crisis communication during public health crises than for natural disaster, transportation, political, social, or criminal crises.  For social crises, social media were engaged significantly less than during natural disasters, transportation, political, criminal, and the “other” category.
  • The extent of social media use and the number of social media tools used by local governments were positively related to the extent of impact of the officials’ crisis management.

Implications for Practice

This research shows strong evidence that strategic use of social media in crisis planning will yield positive impact on and impression of management of a crisis situation. The extent of social media use, but not the number of tools used, was positively associated with the officials’ assessments of their ability to control the crisis as well their overall evaluations of the strength of their response. So in addition to impact, there is evidence that crises can be better contained and managed with strategic social media use; in this case, quantity/breadth was not prioritized over quality/depth. Engaging only one tool meaningfully is likely more effective than “checking all the boxes” and using many tools but not well.

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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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