Bringing Social Media Research Into Crisis Message Strategy and Simulation Practice

In today’s ever-changing and complex digital media environment, crisis communication professionals have to tailor both their messages and approaches to meet the expectations set forth by affected audiences. When implementing strategies from their crisis action playbooks, crisis communication professionals need to know the defining attributes and key characteristics that are most important for each audience to see and hear in any crisis message.

Most existing academic research in crisis communications has focused on evaluating the effectiveness of crisis message strategies through surveys, questionnaires, experiments, and interviews. Despite the increased recognition of the importance of situational variables by practitioners and researchers in crisis communications, a literature and methodological toolkit for the study of situational influences that is comparable to those available for individual variables has not yet emerged.  This is where the Situational Q-Sort and value model come into play – two methods from two different disciplines (psychology and systems engineering respectively) that provide benefits for marketing, public relations, and crisis communication.

What is value modeling? Value modeling is a systems engineering process which provides a measurement scale to “score” different strategies of crisis messaging. We have established several proof-of-concept models to provide an understanding of the characteristics and attributes of effective messages, particularly in social media. Using value modeling, we are able to determine the most effective attributes of a crisis message based on specific attributes assigned by the users. Previous research has been published using this approach that focuses on either natural disasters (Hurricane Irene) or man-made crises (Colorado Shooting in Aurora).

The Riverside Situational Q-Sort (RAP, developed by researchers at the University of California, Riverside) allows researchers and practitioners to quantify subjective first impressions of any situation.  Further, due to the standardized method for assessing subjective impressions, perceptions of situations can be compared to one another. With colleagues Kristin Saling and Laura Freberg, I have published proof of concept research comparing perceptions of food safety messages delivered via social, traditional, and organizational website outlets.

Most crisis communication message strategy research has explored how audiences perceive and attribute certain characteristics on behalf of the organization or parties involved in a crisis situation. However, little research has been done on crisis perception by those who are in charge of disseminating and formulating the crisis messages. Our research in partnership with Hootsuite and Firestorm Solutions brings forth the opportunity to introduce this concept of paper to practice—taking academic research and applying the findings to sustainable and strategic practices that can be used across industries. This research partnership highlights the growing need to formulate bridges between practice and research.

This post is the first in a three-part series on Effective Crisis Messaging. Check back next week for the second article about the necessary metrics for adaptable Crisis Communication message strategies.

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