Rumor or Rescue? The Influence of Social Media During Hurricane Season

Figure 1. Twitter Post from Meteorologist James Spann (@spann) countering false statements about Irma’s path

In the age of social media, rumors have the power to spread more quickly than ever before—like the falsified storm models of Hurricane Irma predicting landfall in Houston while the city is still reeling from the effects of Harvey. One of these fake weather maps was spread on Facebook over 37,000 times in just 17 hours before meteorologists and others spoke out on social media calling these models fake.

Crises, such as Hurricane Harvey, though, also show the potential of social media to organize aid and support, to further rescue efforts, and to help communities rebuild. NPR reports that Facebook, Twitter, and Nextdoor, in some cases, replaced 911 calls. Because of the huge strain on the 911 phone line, flood victims were not able to get calls through, had dropped calls, or were on hold for 45 minutes or more at times. Victims instead posted on Facebook, Twitter, and Nextdoor details about their situation or need for assistance. Other community members physically came to their aid or called 911 and remained on hold on their behalf. Cases like these show the enormous potential of social media in crises, particularly in direct response to aid victims.

Of course, there are many different crisis types that organizations and public relations professionals need to prepare for and respond to effectively: from natural disasters to manmade, from public safety threats to threats against organizational operations or reputation. The power of social media in crisis for disrupting, organizing, community building, reputation enhancing/threatening, and more is seen clearly in the new edited volume Social Media and Crisis Communication. This new volume that we have edited, published by Routledge, is one of the first books to examine comprehensively how social media have influenced—and are continuing to influence—crisis communication. The book introduces and builds theory in this area, while also examining practical applications and cases.

Figure 2. Members of FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force rescue an infant survivor with his family from a neighborhood impacted by flooding from Hurricane Harvey (Photo Credit: FEMA News Photo)

As editors, our vision was to put together a volume that would be of interest to both scholars and practitioners, combining both the theoretical and practical. While this is a lofty goal, the problems of social media and crisis communication are inherently applied research problems, which made our task easier. The theory-building here ties back to inform practice, and practical applications help to inform our theory-building.

Figure 3. Social Media and Crisis Communication Book (Photo Credit: Routledge)

Social Media and Crisis Communication features leading and emerging researchers and scholars who are exploring these important problems in the field of crisis communication and public relations. The book also represents a variety of global and international perspectives, including countries such as Belgium, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Hong Kong, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, the United States, and more.

Included within this new volume are: 1) an overview of social media research in crisis communication, 2) current and emergent issues of social media and crisis communication, 3) foundations and frameworks in both organizational and audience-oriented approaches and considerations, 4) scholarship on characteristics and types of social media, 5) areas of application, including corporate, nonprofit, health, disaster, political, and sports, and 6) emerging frameworks and future directions, including dialogic approaches and measuring engagement.

While this book represents a first comprehensive collection in this area of social media, crisis communication, and public relations, much more scholarship is needed to help understand and truly unleash the potential of social media in crisis. We encourage interested scholars and practitioners out there to keep pursuing and furthering these important research questions.

More information about the Social Media and Crisis Communication book can be found at Routledge’s site. Additionally, we have made the table of contents for the book available for those who may be interested in previewing the book’s contents.


Lucinda Austin (Ph.D., University of Maryland College Park), is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on social media, health and crisis communication, and publics’ perspectives in CSR and relationship-building.

 

Yan Jin (Ph.D., University of Missouri-Columbia), is an associate professor and the assistant department head of Advertising and Public Relations of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia (UGA). She is also the associate director of UGA’s Center for Health and Risk Communication.

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