Liu, Wenlin, Lai, Chih-Hui & Xu, Weiai (2018). Tweeting about emergency: A semantic network analysis of government organizations’ social media messaging during Hurricane Harvey. Public Relations Review, 41(5), 807-819.

The current study examined how government and emergency management organizations respond to the public on Twitter during a natural disaster, Hurricane Harvey. Across the three stages of the disaster (pre, during, and post), the study found that government agencies relied on different response strategies. The pre-disaster communication was predominantly characterized by the strategy of instructing information, the goal of which was to inform the public of potential hazard and emergency preparedness. As the disaster unfolded, both instructing information and adjusting information strategies were used. At this stage, the content of information instruction shifted from providing updates about the disaster to updates about rescue actions taken by focal organizations. Such a shift reflected how emergency management organizations communicated accountability and proactively managed disaster communication. In addition, adjusting information emerged as a primary strategy to offer the public emotional support in the midst of distress. The post-disaster stage was characterized by adjusting information and bolstering strategies, where building community became the priority for government agencies at this stage. In sum, the study identifies stage-based variations with regard to which actors, issues, and actions emerge from emergency management organizations’ public tweets across different stages of a disaster.

Semantic network analysis was conducted on a corpus of tweets sent by government and emergency management organizations operating in the disaster-affected region. The 67 organizations produced a total of 1,849 tweets at pre-disaster stage, 10,991 tweets during disaster, and 2,246 tweets a week after the disaster. Semantic network analysis is an analytical approach focused on the frequencies, co-occurrences, and clustering patterns among words. This method enables researchers to identify prominent actors, issues, and actions that emerge from organizational discourse, offering a close-up look at how these components may be strategically juxtaposed.

Key Findings

  • There were significant stage-based variations in terms of which issues, actions, and actors were mentioned in government agencies’ crisis responses on Twitter.
  • Government and emergency management organizations employed three primary crisis response strategies—instructing information, adjusting information, and bolstering—to different extents across the three disaster stages.
  • The semantic networks of government tweets reflect organizations’ proactive crisis management and strategic framing efforts.

Implications for Practice
Crisis management organizations should select response strategies based on the communication priorities specific to each crisis stage. For example, when the crisis first unfolds, social media messages should focus on reducing public uncertainty by providing information. Bolstering and community building messages can be more effectively used at a later phase. Organizations are also suggested to strategically engage active stakeholders, mention pressing issues, and communicate actions taken when responding to the public on social media.

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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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