Weberling, Brooke, Waters, Richard D., & Tindall, Natalie T. J. (2012). The role of text messaging in public relations: Testing the situational theory of publics for mobile giving campaigns. In S.C. Duhé (Ed.), New Media and Public Relations, 2nd Edition (pp. 189-197). New York: Peter Lang.


Text messaging has been one of the fastest growing technological adoptions among multiple publics and, thus, has become a viable tool for communication and public relations practitioners. The purpose of this study was to determine the impact of text messaging for fundraising, by examining how American Red Cross donors from two chapters (Florida and Illinois) reacted to the “Text Haiti” campaign following the 2009 earthquake in Haiti. Specifically, the study used situational theory of publics to analyze awareness of and involvement in the text messaging campaign.

Using a survey (N=271), this study found that donors who were “active” in the campaign were more aware of and involved with the earthquake and disaster relief efforts than those who were simply “aware” of the disaster and the campaign. Those who actively donated were also more likely to seek information about the earthquake and relief efforts and to perceive fewer constraints to donating via text messaging than non-donors. Proximity also seemed to play a part, as participants from Florida were more likely to donate than participants from Illinois. The authors summarized that text messaging may be a quick and easy way to communicate with stakeholders en masse, but it may not be the most effective way to convert aware publics into active donors, nor to develop lasting relationships between an organization and its many publics.


An online survey was conducted with two American Red Cross chapters (one in Florida and one in Illinois) in spring 2010 (six months after the earthquake). Emails were sent to 1,000 individuals, yielding 271 completed survey responses, for a response rate of approximately 27 percent.

Key Findings

1)      Respondents who actively donated to the Text Haiti campaign were more highly aware of the earthquake, the disaster relief efforts and the needs of the American Red Cross, and scored higher in terms of “involvement” than respondents who were simply “aware” of the issue (but did not donate via the Text Haiti campaign).

2)      Active donors also perceived fewer constraints to donating to the Text Haiti campaign than did non-donors or participants who were simply “aware” and not active with the issue.

3)      The situational theory of publics accurately predicted respondents’ participation in the American Red Cross’ Text Haiti campaign. Path analysis showed statistically significant relationships consistent with the theory among all six variables measured by the survey. In short, problem recognition and involvement predicted information seeking and processing, and constraint recognition had a negative relationship with information seeking and processing. Additionally, information seeking and processing about the earthquake and disaster relief predicted actively donating to the Text Haiti campaign.

4)      Finally, it appears proximity to a disaster may make a difference when it comes to participation in text messaging campaigns. American Red Cross members in Florida were more highly aware of the earthquake in Haiti, were more involved with the situation, perceived fewer constraints to donating, were more likely to seek information about disaster relief, and were also more likely to actively donate to the Text Haiti campaign than respondents from the Illinois chapter of the American Red Cross. All of these results were statistically significant.

Implications for Practice

Text messaging appears to have come a long way in just a few short years in terms of being a viable tool for public relations and fundraising practitioners. A 2008 text messaging campaign conducted by the United Way raised less than $10,000 compared to approximately $32 million, which was raised by the American Red Cross through the Text Haiti campaign in 2010. Since then, more campaigns have used text messaging as a method of communicating and fundraising as well. This study highlights a number of considerations for public relations practitioners considering text-messaging campaigns, which warrant further research and exploration:

1)      Magnitude matters: The event/issue that is the focus of the campaign should be of significant magnitude to the public or to a number of publics. Natural disasters, crises or major events of national and/or international importance are likely to draw more response in terms of donations via text messaging.

2)      Proximity matters: In addition to magnitude, proximity (geographical, social, cultural or otherwise) may play a part in the likelihood that people will participate in a texting campaign (despite the ability to text from and to anyone, anywhere), as evidenced by the fact that respondents in Florida were more likely to donate than respondents in Illinois following the disaster in Haiti.

3)      Increase awareness and involvement: Practitioners conducting text messaging campaigns should do what they can to increase awareness of and involvement with an issue before and beyond the context of launching a text messaging campaign. One of the reasons this campaign was so successful is likely the general level of awareness of this natural disaster, and the mass media’s inclusion of “Text Haiti” details in media coverage of the disaster relief efforts.

4)      Minimize constraints: As previous research on situational theory of publics has indicated, perceived constraints on the part of the public also matter in terms of the likelihood of whether people will participate in a campaign. Although text messaging has become pervasive and is an easy means to communicate, practitioners need to do what they can to minimize issues related to trust, safety, security, hassle and/or other perceived problems that may be related to donating or communicating via text messaging campaigns.

Article Location

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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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