The role of social media in local government crisis communications

The role of social media in local government crisis communications

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Public Relations Review

The role of social media in local government crisis communications Melissa W. Graham a,∗ , Elizabeth J. Avery b , Sejin Park b a b

University of Central Oklahoma, 100 North University Drive, Edmond, OK 73034, United States The University of Tennessee, 476 Communication Building, Knoxville, TN 37996, United States

a r t i c l e

i n f o

Article history: Received 27 June 2014 Received in revised form 29 January 2015 Accepted 2 February 2015 Keywords: Social media Public relations Government Transparency Crisis communication

a b s t r a c t Using survey data collected from more than 300 local government officials from municipalities across the United States, this study examines social media use in a relatively unexplored context, local governments. It specifically addresses 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. Implications and importance of findings are discussed. © 2015 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction Social media enable local governments to communicate important government information, extend government services, and garner feedback and ideas about government operations with citizens (Golbeck, Grimes, & Rogers, 2010). The open, dialogic nature of social media eliminates many of the barriers in citizen communication that governments have historically experienced (Bertot & Jarger, 2010), and communication with constituents can be more frequent, open, and targeted. These benefits offer particular potential and opportunities for governments to communicate with citizens during times of crises. The City of Boston utilized social media heavily to communicate with the public in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings in early 2013. Social media usage by governments was also vital during the recent wildfires in Yosemite National Park as well as the historic flooding in Colorado to get information about the crises and safety protocols to citizens and other interested parties. In times of crisis, social media allow governments and other organizations to communicate quickly and effectively to reach mass publics (Kim & Liu, 2012). A 2013 Pew Research Center report revealed that 72% of American adults utilize social networking sites, which represents a 6% increase from the previous year (Pew Research, 2013). This number is growing exponentially and daily, and organizations are likewise increasingly taking advantage of this trend to communicate with their publics. These overall numbers of social networking usage and a 2013 survey on the state of the news media that identifies a decline in traditional news outlets (Pew Research, 2013) together suggest that citizens will increasingly go online for organizational information, including that from their governments. Social media are an important technology for disaster response, primarily because of the tools that enable open exchange of information through conversation and interaction (Yates & Paquette, 2011). Given its communicative abilities and

∗ Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 9313200985. E-mail addresses: [email protected] (M.W. Graham), [email protected] (E.J. Avery), [email protected] (S. Park). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.02.001 0363-8111/© 2015 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Please cite this article in press as: Graham, M. W., et al. The role of social media in local government crisis communications. Public Relations Review (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.02.001

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contemporary pervasiveness, social media are no longer an optional channel for governments to use only to push organizational messages. As user-generated media, social media give government public relations practitioners the ability to inform and to seek input and opinions from relevant publics (Hand & Ching, 2011) in real-time, which is especially important during a crisis. 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 and stretched time, and less 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. 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 crises and if and how they are incorporating it into their crisis communication plans. This exploratory research provides an important audit of local governments’ use of social media during crisis to inform future research on how social media can best be utilized across government contexts. An exploration of the nature of current social media practices of local governments for crisis communication focuses the discussion on how current practice can be improved. Specific research questions explore the adoption and use of social media tools for crisis communication by local governments and the role social media play in managing a crisis.

2. Literature review First, the role of social media in local governments is reviewed. Then, the benefits of citizen engagement are explicated to demonstrate the potential of social media in crisis management.

2.1. Social media and government As the popularity of social media soars, the importance that governments place on social media as a communication tool to engage citizens must rise in turn and reflect active dialog with citizens as a priority (Golbeck et al., 2010). Previous research reveals governments are adopting social media for many different purposes, including: recruiting activities (Dorris, 2008); reaching out to citizens and other publics; disseminating information to the public and sharing information across government agencies (Chang & Kanan, 2008; Dorris, 2008); enhancing and promoting community participation (Dorris, 2008); and achieving transparency (Bertot & Jarger, 2010; Bertot, Jaeger, & Grimes, 2010). Although Duhe (2014) notes government and politics is a surging area of new media research, only one study (Graham & Avery, 2013) has focused on local governments. While the reported benefits of social media use for governments are vast, a recent national study by Graham and Avery (2013) reveals local governments are somewhat underutilizing social media tools. Encouragingly, the majority of local governments report using social media to some extent; however, the extent that each tool is used does not represent active engagement with citizens through social media (Graham & Avery, 2013). Since governments are an important information source for publics during a crisis, their engagement through social media should be more active and reflect a clear response priority in crisis communication plans.

2.2. Benefits of citizen engagement Efficiency, convenience, accountability, transparency, citizen involvement, and improved trust and democracy are among the cited benefits of social media use in government (Chang & Kanan, 2008; Cromer, 2010; Dorris, 2008; Kuzma, 2010). Through social media applications, governments can communicate more efficiently with publics than with more traditional media and are often able to save resources including time and money (Kingsley, 2010; Kuzma, 2010). Most federal government agencies have a social media presence that includes blogs, social networking sites, YouTube channels, and more (Bertot, Jaeger, Munson, & Glaisyer, 2010). Moreover, citizens actively using social media desire tangible and interactive communication with their governments (Lovari & Parisi, 2015). While the majority of research regarding social media and governments focuses on the federal level, one exception is Hand and Ching’s (2011) examination of Phoenix area local governments’ use of social media that found “using social media at the local government level seems to offer promise of increased citizen engagement, reaching citizens on a common platform, and allowing for citizen comments” (p. 379). A similar study by Bonson, Torres, Royo, and Flores (2012) that examined social media use in local governments in Europe found that many governments have taken advantage of the opportunities social media present and realized that by disseminating news through social media they can vastly increase audience reach at little cost. Moreover, the main benefits that social media offer the public sector are increased opportunities for engagement with citizens and enhanced transparency (Bonson et al., 2012). Since citizen expectations are a primary consideration for local government activities, government officials’ understandings of citizen expectations of their social media use is a strong indicator of its usage and importance in government (Avery & Graham, 2013). Still, there is no current assessment of how local governments are using social media for crisis communication; therefore, we ask: RQ1.

To what extent do local governments engage social media during crisis?

Please cite this article in press as: Graham, M. W., et al. The role of social media in local government crisis communications. Public Relations Review (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.02.001

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2.3. Moderators of use and reasons for engaging social media Previous research on local governments and government agencies suggests that certain factors influence the adoption of social media use in organizations. As demonstrated in an analysis of local public health departments, Avery et al. (2010) found that public information officers in health departments had been slower to adopt social media technologies than practitioners in other industries; furthermore, significant differences were discovered depending on the size of the community served by that department. The research showed that practitioners in urban communities exhibit the highest adoption rates, followed by suburban, large town, and rural communities. Therefore, we predict: H1.

Larger communities will use social media to a greater extent for crisis communications than smaller communities.

Additionally, among those who used social media to disseminate health information, the most commonly used tools were social networking sites (Avery et al., 2010). Another moderating factor on the adoption of social media use in governments is the number of public information officers on staff. Local governments with more staff members devoted to communication efforts are more likely to have a stronger social media presence than governments with smaller staffs (Graham & Avery, 2013). This finding suggests that larger communities with larger budgets and more communication personnel are more likely to utilize social media to communicate with citizens; these disparities in engagement become more disturbing in the face of crisis, when public safety may be at stake. To further test and extend these findings in a government context, we ask: RQ2.

To what extent do crisis managers report that social media improved their management of the crisis?

RQ3.

To what extent does social media use predict extent of crisis managers’ sense of control during a crisis?

RQ4.

To what extent did social media use predict how well the local government recovered from the crisis?

2.4. Social media and crisis communication Digital media, and in particular social media, have been catalysts for great change in the practice of crisis communication. However, research has only begun to analyze the role and potential of social media in crises (Jin, Liu, & Austin, 2014; Liu, Austin, & Jin, 2011; Schultz, Utz, & Goritz, 2011; Utz, Schultz, & Glocka, 2012). The goal of crisis communication is to convey the right information to the right people, and social media enable rapid information exchange. Mayfield (2006) describes social media as human communication that presents characteristics of openness, participation, conversation, community, and connectedness. The results from an American Red Cross (2011) survey reveal that Americans are increasingly reliant on social media and mobile technologies to learn about ongoing disasters and to seek help and to share information after emergencies. Research shows that during a crisis an audience’s social media use increases (Smith, 2011), and social media are often perceived to be more credible sources than traditional mass media (Procopio & Procopio, 2007). Both journalists and their publics frequently rely on social media for news ideas and information (GWU & Cision, 2009; Lariscy, Avery, Sweetser, & Howes, 2009). A recent study by Liu, Fraustino, and Jin (2015) reveals there is no single social media form preferred for disseminating information about a crisis and that continued investment is needed in ensuring many different communication forms are utilized. 2.5. Situational crisis communication theory Coombs’ situational crisis communication theory, SCCT, is undoubtedly the most commonly used theory to examine crisis communication and management (Coombs, 2004, 2007). In sum, SCCT suggests that an organization’s crisis response should correspond to the extent of its responsibility for the crisis and the reputational threat posed by the crisis (Coombs, 2007). Jin and Liu (2010) proposed a modification of the SCCT that incorporates social media, the social-mediated crisis communication model (SMCC) to guide crisis managers in their social media efforts and activities following a crisis. In particular, SMCC outlines the interactions between an organization involved in a crisis and the different types of publics who produce and consume information about the crisis via social media (Liu et al., 2013). The first public described in SMCC involves people who create crisis information for others to consume and are known as influential social media creators. The second public in SMCC is known as social media followers and includes those who consume the influential social media creators’ crisis information. The third public identified by SMCC includes individuals who consume the informational social media creators’ information indirectly, social media inactives. By identifying different publics using SMCC, crisis managers, through monitoring social media, can know how and when to respond online. Also revealing best practices for practitioners amidst crisis, Veil, Buehner, and Palenchar (2011) propose guidelines for organizations to follow in incorporating social media tools in risk and crisis communication. They recommend: “1) Determine social media engagement as part of the risk and crisis management policies and approaches; 2) Incorporate social media tools in environmental scanning to listen to risk and crisis bearer concerns; 3) Engage social media in daily communication activities; 4) Join the conversation, including rumor management, and determine best channels to reach segmented publics; 5) Check all information for accuracy and respond honestly; 6) Follow and share messages with credible sources; 7) Recognize that the media is already using social media; 8) Remember that social Please cite this article in press as: Graham, M. W., et al. The role of social media in local government crisis communications. Public Relations Review (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.02.001

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media is interpersonal communication; 9) Use social media as the primary tool for updates; 10) Ask for help and provide direction; and 11) Remember Web 2.0 is not a Panacea (Veil et al., 2011, p. 119).” In addition to the many crisis response strategies to select from during a crisis, communications practitioners also must decide which social media tools are appropriate to use and how frequently they should post updates. The choices range from social networking sites such as Facebook and Google Plus, microblogging sites such as Twitter, photosharing sites such as Pinterest and Instagram, and video sharing sites including YouTube and Vimeo. Sometimes it might be appropriate to use all of these to communicate during a crisis, and other times it would make more sense to focus on one or two. During the 2007 and 2008 wildfires in California, Twitter was used to share information and updates with the public (Sutton, Palen, & Shklovski, 2008). Twitter was also instrumental in sharing information quickly about the 2009 crash of U.S. Airways flight 1549. Shortly after the crash of Asiana Air flight 214 in July 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board used Twitter and YouTube to inform the public about the investigation and share quotes and videos from the press conferences (Derner, 2013). Facebook was the primary crisis communication tool used following a devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010; images of the devastation were quickly circulated online through Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Several social media tools were heavily used by the American Red Cross to solicit donations to help those affected by the crisis (Morgan, 2010). In response to the imminent threat posed by Hurricane Sandy to the Atlantic Coast, Governors, Mayors and other elected officials relied heavily Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to inform citizens of threats and evacuations, and, in the aftermath relied on these tools to get out vital updates to the public (Preston & Stetler, 2012). Increasingly organizations are incorporating social media into their crisis response strategies and placing great importance on the ability of various social media tools to reach targeted audience. Local governments are often on the front lines of a crisis, so this evaluation of the extent to which local governments are utilizing social media in response to specific crisis situations and the specific social media tools they are using is of particular importance. The crisis responses reviewed above reveal that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are used frequently to communicate about natural disasters and major accidents; thus, it follows that different types of crises will necessitate varying types and extent of use of social media tools for strategic response. Therefore, the following hypotheses are made: H2.

The extent of social media use will vary by crisis type.

H3.

The number of social media tools used will vary by crisis type.

While the area of crisis communication and social media research is quickly developing, little empirical research exists on the extent to which these best practices are evident in local governments’ use of social media for crisis communication, but this study expands that knowledge base. As nearly one-third of online adults report using social media sites to acquire information about government agencies or officials (Pew Research, 2013), it is critical to develop a broader understanding of how governments are taking advantage of the opportunities social media offer, especially during crisis. 3. Method 3.1. Survey administration In order to investigate local governments’ crisis management, a private survey research firm that specializes in local government and public policy research administered a national survey to its database of local government officials. The firm was selected based on its ability to reach the most broad and representative sample of government offices that both serve a wide range of population sizes and are diverse in the form of their governments (mayor, manager, commission, etc.). Following IRB protocol, participants were sent a solicitation email that requested their participation. If they chose to click on the survey link, participants were first asked to read a statement of informed consent then notified that by clicking to continue the survey they were expressing their consent. The survey data were stripped of identifying information and entered into an SPSS file prior to being given to the researchers. Data were then entered into SPSS, cleaned, and screened. As an incentive, participants were promised and sent an aggregate summary of data for completing the survey. 3.2. Participants An email request for survey participation was sent to public officials and government employees who handle communication functions. The research firm sent the email with a cover letter from the lead researcher. The firm’s list is generated and constantly updated by the research firm through direct human research seeking local government officials’ email addresses on the Internet and, in some cases, by calling the office directly to request contact information. A total of 307 government officials participated in the survey about their crisis management. There were 228 partial completions that were not included in this analysis, and 125 participants who started the survey but were disqualified as they did not meet criteria for participation (e.g., did not perform a communication function, did not recall a crisis). Job titles of participants are varied and include the following titles: public information officer, mayor, city administrator, director of administration, city manager, village manager, council member, director of public safety, president of council, village administrator, and town supervisor. The most common titles were mayor and city manager. Ages range from 28 to 85, with 11 participants (3.6%) choosing not to answer. The age mean is 55, median is 57, and mode is 62. There are Please cite this article in press as: Graham, M. W., et al. The role of social media in local government crisis communications. Public Relations Review (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.02.001

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Table 1 ANOVA results for social media use. Factor

Dependent variables Level of social media use

Community size Crisis type * **

Number of social media used

F

df

2

F

df

2

4.81* 2.97*

2, 200 6, 198

.04 .07

5.81** 1.34

2, 283 6, 280

.03 .04

p < .05 (two-tailed). p < .01 (two-tailed).

representatives from 44 states in the sample. Government officials representing population sizes from less than 5000 people (n = 8, 2%) to 300,000 or more (n = 1, .3%) were represented in the sample, with the largest categories being populations of 10,000–29,000 (n = 130, 42.3%) and 5000–9999 (n = 76, 25%). Forms of government include board of trustees, commissions, council-manager/administrator/supervisor, major-councils, presidents, supervisor-councils, and village boards. 3.3. Measures To answer RQ1, participants were asked to answer a yes/no question whether they used social media in crisis management. In addition, the types of social media used (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube) were measured with a ‘check all that apply’ question. The level of usage of social media was measured by asking “On a scale of 1–5, with I being not at all and 5 being great deal, did you use social media in your crisis management.” The number of social media tools used was calculated by adding the numbers of social media in the social media type question. These two questions (social media usage level and number of social media used) were also used for testing H2 and 3. For hypothesis testing, respondents indicated the population of their communities as one of the following: less than 5000; 5000–9999; 10,000–29,999; 30,000–49,999; 50,000–99,999; 100,000–199,999; 200,000–299,999; 300,000 or more. A series of questions were designed to measure crisis types. First, participants were asked to consider a crisis that they had recently managed in their communities. Participants who could not recall a particular crisis were directed to a survey related to general crisis communication. Those who were able to recall a crisis were asked to identify the type of crisis as one of the following: public health, natural disaster, transportation, political, social, criminal, environmental, and other. Finally, to insure that participants had correctly categorized the crisis, they were asked to provide detailed descriptions about the crisis. For RQ2, 3, and 4 participants were asked for their level of agreement with the following statements on a 5-point scale (1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree): (a) “Social media improved our ability to manage the crisis (RQ2)”; (b) “I felt control during the crisis situation (RQ3)”; and (c) “My city’s post-crisis response (recovery) was strong (RQ4).” 4. Results 4.1. Social media usage of local governments (RQ1) Among 288 government officials, 71% (N = 205) used social during crisis while 29% (N = 83) did not. Facebook (N = 157, 53%) was the most popular social medium followed by Twitter (N = 81, 27%), blogs (N = 17, 6%), YouTube (N = 13, 5%), Google Plus (N = 8, 3%), and other (N = 19, 6%). The level of usage of social media (i.e., “On a scale of 1–5, with I being not at all and 5 being great deal, did you use social media in your crisis management”) was M = 2.86, SD = 1.48 [1 (N = 83, 29%), 2 (N = 34, 12%), 3 (N = 63, 22%), 4 (N = 56, 19%), 5 (N = 52, 18%)]. The average number of social media used during the crisis was M = 1.37, SD = 1.28 [0 (83, 29%, 1 (91, 32%), 2 (64, 22%), 3 (34, 12%), 4 (12, 4%), 6 (2, 1%), 7 (2, 1%)]. Finally, reported crisis types were public health (N = 14, 5%), natural disaster (N = 200, 70%), transportation (N = 8, 3%), political (N = 15, 5%), social (N = 7, 2%), criminal (N = 27, 9%), environmental (N = 0, 0%), and other (N = 16, 6%). 4.2. Community size and social media use (H1) In order to test the relationships between community size and social media use (i.e., the level of social media use and the number of social media used), the populations of cities were divided into three groups based on the number of responses in each group [Group 1: less than 9999 (N = 81), Group 2: 10,000–49,999 (N = 158), Group 3: more than 50,000 (N = 49)]. Two one-way between subjects ANOVAs were performed to identify relationships. To analyze the relationship between community size and the level of social media use, responses from participants who did not use social media (N = 83) were excluded from the analysis. As Table 1 shows, there was a significant relationship between community size and the level of usage of social media [F (2,200) = 4.81, p = .009]. Post hoc comparisons using the LSD test indicated that the mean for Group 1 (M = 3.23, SD = 1.00) was significantly different than Group 2 (M = 3.66, SD = 1.03) and Group 3 (M = 3.89, SD = 1.00). The result of second ANOVA was consistent with Hypothesis 1 [F (2,283) = 5.81, p = .003]. A LSD post hoc comparison was conducted Please cite this article in press as: Graham, M. W., et al. The role of social media in local government crisis communications. Public Relations Review (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.02.001

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Table 2 Standardized regression coefficients of predictors. Predictors

Block 1 Block 2

Dependent variables

Age Working years Level of social media use Number of social media used R2 (R2 change)

* **

Impact on crisis management

Crisis situation control

Strength of response

−.09 .18* .41** .17*

.04 .13 .17* −.05

.11 .04 .19* .05

.26** (.23)

.02 (.01)

.05* (.04)

p < .05 (two-tailed). p < .01 (two-tailed).

to find significant differences between groups. The mean of number of social media use for Group 1 (M = .99, SD = 1.07) was significantly lower than the means for Group 2 (M = 1.45, SD = 1.27) and Group 3 (M = 1.71, SD = 1.50). 4.3. Social media use and crisis management (RQs 2, 3, and 4) Three hierarchical multiple regressions explored the relationship between social media use and the crisis management of local governments. For each dependent variable (social media’s impact on crisis management, control of the crisis situation, and the strength of government’s response to crisis), the first block that included the practitioners’ age and working years was entered first followed by the second block that included the extent of social media use and the number of social media tools used. Table 2 summarizes the results of the regressions on dependent variables. For all three regressions, the first block did not account for any significant variance in the dependent variables. However, when the second block was added to the first hierarchical regression, the R2 significantly increased from .03 to .26, and both the extent of social media use (ˇ = .41, p < .01) and the number of social media tools used (ˇ = .16, p < .05) were positively related to the officials’ crisis management. The second regression’s results revealed that the level of social media use was positively associated with the officials’ ability to control the crisis (ˇ = .17, p < .05), while the number of social media tools engaged was not. Finally, the results of the first regression indicate that only the extent of social media use (ˇ = .19, p < .05) was a significant predictor of the strength of government’s response to crisis. 4.4. Crisis type and social media use (H2 and 3) The relationships between crisis types and social media use were tested using two one-way between-subjects ANOVAs. There was a significant relationship between crisis type and the level of social media usage at the p < .01 level [F (6,198) = 2.97, p = .009]. Post hoc comparisons using the LSD test indicated that the mean for public health (N = 9, M = 4.56, SD = .73) was different from natural disaster (N = 145, M = 3.60, SD = 1.02), transportation (N = 7, M = 3.57, SD = .98), political (N = 6, M = 3.50, SD = 1.05), social (N = 6, M = 2.33, SD = .52), and criminal (N = 20, M = 3.65, SD = 1.04). Also, social was significantly different from natural disaster, transportation, political, criminal, and other (N = 12, M = 3.75, SD = 1.04). On the other hand, the second ANOVA results showed that there was not a significant relationship between crisis type and the number of social media used [F (6,280) = 1.34, p = .238]. 5. Discussion What began as an exploratory review of social media use during crisis for local governments yielded compelling results that underscore the importance of extending this work. First, results of individual hypothesis and research question testing are reviewed in turn, then we discuss overall implications for theory and practice. This work provides an important assessment of how local governments are engaging social media amidst crisis that suggests they may lag compared to corporate and other organizational contexts. The direct implications on public safety for governments with strained resources managing crises are particularly motivating to extend this line of inquiry. 5.1. Social media usage of local governments Although encouraging that more than 70% of these government officials engage social media during crisis, this optimism is somewhat blighted by the fact that almost one-third of their counterparts do not, and their extent of use is disappointing. Pew Research (2013) reports that 73% of online adults use a social networking site; 71% use Facebook, and 71% use Twitter. With government officials during crisis, Facebook (53%) was the most popular social medium followed by Twitter (27%); blogs, YouTube, Google Plus, and other tools were all well under a 10% engagement rate. Yet, when reporting extent of overall use in crisis management, the mean reported by local government officials (M = 2.86) reveals their use was barely greater than the midpoint. About 30% of the sample reported using no social media tools during crisis, and, even for those who used tools, the majority (54%) engaged 2 or fewer tools. Please cite this article in press as: Graham, M. W., et al. The role of social media in local government crisis communications. Public Relations Review (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.02.001

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In a report from the Congressional Research Service, Lindsay (2011) acknowledges the growing role of social media in emergency preparedness and management and notes social media are the fourth most popular source for crisis information for publics; given the rapid growth of social media just in the last three years it has presumably gone up in rank. Social media enable rapid information exchange to mass audiences and may be an even more credible information source than traditional mass media; they offer organizations efficiency with respect to time and budget in releasing information (Kingsley, 2010; Kuzma, 2010; Procopio & Procopio, 2007). Yet, one-third of government offices in this study were not using social media in their crisis management. Given the well-established benefits they offer organizations, the reasons for this lack of use call for further explanation; we turn to identified moderators of use to start to explore why. 5.2. Community size and social media use Avery et al. (2010) note public information officers in health departments were slower to adopt social media technologies than their counterparts in other industries and found differences depending on the size of the community served by that department, with rural departments lagging behind those serving larger and more urban areas. This finding led us to hypothesize that differences would also be present according to size of population served in this more broad analysis of officials managing a range of crises, from health to political scandal. 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 two larger population categories. Consistent with Avery et al.’s (2010) findings, this survey found that as community size increased so did the extent of use and number of social media tools engaged during a crisis. This finding is disconcerting and likely explained by the fact that rural officials are managing more strained time, human, and financial resources. Keim and Noji (2011) note that social media may offer important psychological benefits for vulnerable populations amidst disaster and better involve them as stakeholders in the organization’s response. Victims of disaster identify the need to contribute to improve their abilities to cope with the situation (Keim & Noji, 2011), and during a crisis social media offer an important forum in which people can engage in dialog. These support networks may be especially critical in rural areas where people are more isolated and, often, underserved. Local governments must reach broad audiences during crisis, and the presence of disparities among the smaller, rural population local government offices is troubling to that end. In addition to the support offered these publics by social media, disparities in engagement among officials indicate response protocols may not be as broadly or immediately distributed in more rural areas, which may compromise public health and safety and, ultimately, the local government officials’ reputation. According to Pew Research (2013), 76% of urban, 72% of suburban, and 70% of rural online adults use social networking sites; clearly the vast majority of adults across all urbanities are using social media, and the fact that rural government officials are still lagging behind their larger population counterparts is troubling. Regardless of the moderating factors of their use, which should be explored in future research, rural local governments officials’ engagement of social media during crisis revealed here is troubling. Social media enable participation, contribution, coping, control, and resiliency during crisis, which may be of particular important for more isolated, vulnerable populations. Future research must inform practitioners how to effectively and strategically engage social media during crisis even in the face of strained resources. 5.3. Crisis type and social media use Social media use was central to crisis response in major crises such as the wildfires in California (Sutton et al., 2008), the 2009 crash of U.S. Airways flight 1549 (Derner, 2013), the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and Hurricane Sandy (Preston & Stetler, 2012). Now, strategic crisis planning entails identifying which social tools to engage in response, who will manage them, and the nature of frequency of updates, among many other considerations. As in routine organizational operations, social media must be engaged efficiently amidst crisis, with an effective plan for their use that makes them more than just tactics but integral to strategy. Of all media channels, social media offer the most efficient method of the crisis principle of “telling it all and telling it now and telling the truth”—as well as sharing information broadly and fast. Prior research such as the studies referenced above demonstrates value of social media during crisis, especially Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube during a natural disaster and major accidents; of course, this optimism is tempered by the fact that social media can also contribute to rumor and misinformation (Keim & Noji, 2011). But, a more nuanced understanding of social media engagement during crisis also requires understanding of how to best match tools to a different crisis situations based on audience information needs and use. This study takes a first step in that direction by examining the current state of social media use during different types of crises. Although the number of tools did not vary by crisis type, 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. These results are encouraging evidence that social media are, to some extent, being engaged strategically during crises based on perceived need; of all the types of crisis, public health crises likely present the most widespread and imminent threats to public well-being and the most immediate informational demands. Thus, it is positive that use rates are higher for those crisis types. Conversely, social crises would likely call for significantly less social media engagement, as they likely do not require much public response. The fact that practitioners Please cite this article in press as: Graham, M. W., et al. The role of social media in local government crisis communications. Public Relations Review (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.02.001

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are using social media to a greater extent depending on the type of crisis suggests strategic engagement of the tools instead of a “one size fits all” crisis response model approach. Finally, regression equations were used to evaluate if the extent of social media use, and the number of social media tools engaged affected the impact of crisis management, control of the situation, and officials’ evaluations of the strength of their responses. The effects of age of the officials and the number of years on the job were entered in the first block of the equation to control for the effects of those factors, which were not significant. Both the extent of social media use and the number of social media tools used were positively related to the extent of impact of the officials’ crisis management. Overall, it seems that practitioners can take from this finding strong evidence that strategic use of social media in their crisis planning will yield positive impact on and impression of their management of the 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, practitioners are also given evidence here 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. 5.4. Limitations and future research This research has limitations. One limitation of this data is that it does rely on recall of a crisis situation; however, we asked for a recent crisis to overcome some of this threat to validity and reliability. Further, to avoid artificial context testing while reaching a broad sample, it was deemed to be the best approach. Another limitation is the threat of a desirable response bias, especially when evaluating their own offices’ performances. However, variability even in these assessments indicates a degree of honesty and not just desirability in those assessments. Future research can use the exploratory results presented here to test more specifically the effects and audience use of different types of tools during various crisis situations to reveal how these tools are engaged. Exploring this topic from the citizen point of view is important for future studies to ensure that citizen desires for information during a crisis are being met. 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