How Social Media is Changing Communication in Emergencies

Photo: Héctor García (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo: Héctor García (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) 

One of the great things about being asked to contribute to a book is that it gives you a reason to read a lot. One of the articles I really liked is “Social media use during Japan’s 2011 earthquake: How Twitter transforms the locus of crisis communication” (Seong Eun Cho, Kyujin Jung and Han Woo Park; Media International Australia 2013; No 146, February 2013).

What makes this article so interesting is that instead of focusing on how organisations are using social media, the authors looked at

  • how the affected population used social media following the earthquake and tsunami
  • how the inability of disaster response organisations to interact with the affected population through social media has moved crisis communication away from these organisations.

Among other things, the authors found that many users in Japan relied on social media as their primary source of information after the disaster:

“Individual users tended to rely more on sites providing peer-generated content – for example, video/photo-sharing sites, blogs, and online communities – than on news channels. This indicates that in this era of social media, individuals not only prefer peer-to-peer communication for recovering from a crisis but also rely more on peer-generated resources than on traditional and official information resources.”

The authors also found that not being on social media – or only broadcasting information instead of engaging in conversations – hurts “the credibility of governments and reduce[s] the effectiveness of the traditional information flow.”

However, this is not a case of official versus unofficial information – it’s a question of effective versus ineffective crisis communication. The authors mention that people were in fact looking at the authorities for information. But people quickly turned elsewhere after being disappointed by how these authorities communicated.

This means that disaster responders who are used to having a public information monopoly need to rethink how they are communicating. If they don’t communicate with the audience in the way the audience expects, then the audience goes elsewhere. On the flip-side, the large interest in the authorities’ social media channels also shows that there is an enormous upside if communication is done right. But that means, that you have to want to do it.

To me it often looks like many authorities are still stuck in the horse and carriage age even though their audience has gotten used to coach buses. While people are still aware that the horse and carriage exists, there is no way they’d rely on it if they quickly need to get from A to B. Instead of lamenting the changes that new technologies bring, disaster responders need to get serious about embracing them. The article about social media use following the Japan earthquake is a good tool if you need scientific evidence to convince your bosses to give you the resources you need.

How has your crisis communication changed over the last few years? Tell us in the comments below!


  1. A man November 12, 2014
  2. Guest November 12, 2014