This dissertation examined how seven federal agencies utilized Twitter during a major natural disaster, Hurricane Sandy. Data collected included tweets between October 26-31, 2012 via TweetTracker, as well as federal social media policy doctrines and elite interviews, to discern patterns in the guidance provided to federal public information officers (PIOs). While scholarly research cites successful local and state government efforts utilizing social media to improve response efforts in a two-way communications interaction, no substantive research addresses social media’s role in crisis response capabilities at the federal level.
This study contributes to the literature in three ways: it focuses solely on the use of social media by federal agencies in a crisis setting; it illuminates policy directives that often hamper federal crisis communication response efforts; and it suggests a proposed model that channels the flow of social media content for PIOs. This is especially important to the safety of the nation moving forward, since crises have increased. Additionally, Twitter was adopted only recently as an official communications tool in 2013. Prior to 2013, social media was applied informally and inconsistently.
The findings of this study reveal a reliance upon a one-way, passive communication approach in social media federal policy directives, as well as vague guidelines in existing crisis communications models. Both dimensions are counter to risk management and crisis communication research, which embrace two-way interactivity with audiences and specific messaging that bolsters community engagement, which are vital to the role of the PIO. The resulting model enables the PIO to provide relevant information to key internal agencies and external audiences in response to a future crisis.
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