Social Media in Crisis Communications

Artifact OL 615: Social Media in Crisis Communications

Laura Inlow

Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota

Artifact OL 615: Social Media in Crisis Communications

A literature review on the “Implications of Social Media Use in Crisis Communications on College Campuses” demonstrates the seventh program learning outcome, the ability to conduct research and communicate results effectively (“Saint Mary’s University”, 2016).

The paper demonstrates the program learning outcome from developing a single research question to evaluating the information and sources and communicating with clarity (“Saint Mary’s University”, 2016). It also demonstrates the course objective regarding the synthesis and critical analysis (“Saint Mary’s University”, 2016) of a wealth of information (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 10) from a variety of reliable sources and points of view on a topic (“Saint Mary’s University”, 2016). Its composition flows nicely and lays the subject out in digestible sections of material. The subject matter is broken down into further detail and illustrated through examples and case studies to communicate the subject more clearly to the reader and demonstrate a strong grasp of the material (“Saint Mary’s University”, 2016).

In addition to highlighting research and academic writing processes, the assignment was an opportunity to learn more about a subject matter that is applicable and timely in the realm of professional communications and public relations. Background information on the subject, along with case studies from colleges and universities that have worked through crises and demonstrated effective use of social media for communications, make it possible for others to work these methods into future emergency communications plans and be prepared for the worst.


American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. (2016, September). 2016-2017 catalog & student handbook, Organizational Leadership, M.A. Retrieved from

Implications of Social Media Use in Crisis Communications on College Campuses

Laura M. Inlow

Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota

Schools of Graduate & Professional Programs

OL 615 Critical Thinking and Research

George Diaz

December 13, 2015


Since the rise of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter in the mid-2000s, the field of professional communications has been forever changed. Because of the sites’ conversational style and widespread instantaneous access, Facebook, Twitter, and others have become go-to sources for information during crisis situations, including those on college campuses, where the key demographic is, on average, of the “net generation” (Mastrodicasa, 2008). As a result, communications professionals on college campuses have successfully worked social media into their Emergency Notification System plans, mainly as supplemental modes of communicating with stakeholders – students, faculty, staff, families, the media, and other members of the general public – secondary to direct voice, email and text messages. Meanwhile, stakeholders themselves continue to use social media during crisis events to crowd source information and offer support to victims and families during and following an incident. However, due to the ever-changing nature of social media and the Web, more research is still needed to understand social media’s true impact on crisis communications on college campuses.

Implications of Social Media Use in Crisis Communications on College Campuses

During a campus crisis, a university or college’s communications office has the responsibility to disseminate important information quickly and efficiently among the college’s stakeholders, which may include students, faculty, staff, parents, visitors, community members, and the media, among others. The goal in any crisis situation – from a terrorist threat or active shooter event, to a natural disaster or an epidemic (Snoeijers, Poels, & Nicolay, 2014) – is to quickly share urgent information designed to protect these stakeholders (Snoeijers, Poels, & Nicolay, 2014), and later on, help them move forward.

Methods of getting this information to stakeholders should be outlined in a college’s Emergency Notification System (ENS) plan, which typically involves such communications modes as direct voice calls and messages, text messages, and emails. Within the last decade, social media platforms, namely Facebook and Twitter, have become popular forms of communication, and have changed the way businesses and institutions regularly communicate with stakeholders. Because social media allows for quick and direct messaging to a large audience (Utz, Schultz, & Glocka, 2013), and because the web is a growing source of information among younger people (Pempek, Yermolayeva, & Calvert, 2009), it is important to understand how social media affects crisis communications in a college campus setting.

While oftentimes, the crisis in question will determine the proper response strategy or strategies (Snoeijers, Poels, & Nicolay, 2014), social media certainly has a place in every college’s ENS plan, at least as a secondary mode of communication to supplement direct phone calls, texts and emails, to relay information to the media, and to follow up with stakeholders following a major crisis event.


Because crises are unplanned and often disastrous, a crisis management plan involving a communication strategy should be established on every campus so administrators can be prepared and prepare their stakeholders (Agozzino & Kaiser, 2014). Proper planning makes it easier for an organization to react more efficiently in the event of a crisis. Plans should aim for stakeholders’ safety, but also transparency, to instill trust in the organization (Agozzino & Kaiser, 2014).

Faculty and staff should be aware of the school’s plans for handling a crisis, key audiences should be identified for certain messages and a single point of contact should be designated for communicating with the media and other stakeholders (Agozzino & Kaiser, 2014) during a crisis.

Both federal and local entities, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have long utilized emergency communications plans like the Incident Command System, developed in the 1970s by firefighters fighting California wildfires (Winerman, 2009). These types of systems were created with a top-down chain of command and meant to be used as a one-way communication tool to broadcast important information to the masses (Winerman, 2009, p. 378).

The advent of social media – beginning with Friendster in 2002 and MySpace in 2003 (Tiedje, 2011), through Facebook and Flickr in 2004, YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006 (Tiedje, 2011) – the general public has gained a voice online. Communications ever since have been trending away from the broadcast model, and toward a more conversational one. Comment sections, forums, blogs, photo and video sharing sites and social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter, have opened the gates for members of the public to weigh in with their knowledge and opinions regarding the news of the day and what’s going on in the community, and they’re taking advantage – especially when it comes to a crisis.

For communications professionals who are used to controlling messaging and content, this loss of control can be disturbing. However, researchers know that social media channels allow users to reach a large, widespread audience, directly and quickly (Utz, Schultz, & Glocka, 2013). Moreover, they allow communications professionals to reach their public without the bias of “gatekeeper media” (Snoeijers, Poels, & Nicolay, 2014). Social media, in other words, is a direct line to stakeholders.

From a public perspective, although social media has given the people a voice, it also has made it harder for the average person to determine the credibility of sources they’re reading online – so there are benefits as well as drawbacks.

Peer-to-Peer Crisis Information

Thomas Drabek, a disaster researcher at the University of Denver, Colorado, said people who receive warnings from official sources actually tend to check in with family and friends to discuss their next moves before actually taking action in crisis scenarios (Winerman, 2009).

As evidenced by real life crisis situations like the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, the University of Canterbury earthquake in 2010, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, among others, people flock to the Internet and social media moments after a crisis to find the information they would normally have to wait hours or even days for via traditional media sources. Planned or not, social media has organically become the go-to place for information and news in the event of a disaster.

Where, on social media, they flock to depends. To increase the chances people are looking to an organization’s official social media presence for information is dependent on whether that organization has started and nurtured relationships with stakeholders via social media pre-crisis (Agozzino & Kaiser, 2014). Many educational institutions are doing so in order to reach stakeholders where they’re already spending their time.

Message Content and Purposes

Message content during a crisis on a college campus can range in scope, especially depending on the crisis at hand. However, need-to-know information can often be categorized as either instructing information or adapting information (Snoeijers, Poels, & Nicolay, 2014). Both types of messages are important and shared on a need-to-know basis. Both work toward fulfilling four primary functions for emergency communications –  communications, political, information and helping (Dabner, 2011, p. 71).

Instructing information includes details about what to do during a crisis to protect oneself (Snoeijers, Poels, & Nicolay, 2014). These types of messages can range from details regarding a suspect in a campus violence situation to instructions for evacuating in the event of a disaster. Instructing messages are often timely and integral to a campus’ emergency management plan.

Adapting information is what comes after an event, and typically helps stakeholders move on and cope after the fact (Snoeijers, Poels, & Nicolay, 2014). Adapting information might include volunteer opportunities, information about relief efforts, details on counseling, words of encouragement and more.

Content Sharing

In order to get these messages in front of as large an audience as possible, communications professionals hope their content, especially high importance messages like those during a crisis, will be shared and spread among connections and their friends, so as many people as possible can benefit from them. Therefore, when planning the use of social media in an ENS plan, college communications professionals need to consider the shareability of the content and ways to make the content more interactive.

Snoeijers, Poels, and Nicolay (2014) found that adapting information, for example, was more likely to be shared among friends and connections on both Facebook and Twitter than instructing information. They also found that, in some cases, it may matter who the messaging comes from – either the CEO (president or dean of the college) or an institutional page not connected with a specific individual (Snoeijers, Poels, & Nicolay, 2014).

In addition to who is posting the content, the content itself also matters, as well as where it’s being shared. Based on the analysis of 2,074 posts from a shooting at Albemarle High School in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2014, spikes in mentions were observed when the names of the shooter and victims were made public (Mazer, Thompson, Cherry, Russell, Payne, Kirby, & Pfohl, 2015). Five main topics of discussion included “details on the active shooter incident, emotional reactions, personal connections, thoughts and prayers, and calls for change/action” (Mazer et al., 2015). During that incident, Twitter, followed by Facebook, were the top social media sites utilized (Mazer et al., 2015). In the Snoeijers, Poels, and Nicolay (2014) study, Twitter was also determined to be a more preferable platform for secondary crisis communications as opposed to Facebook.

A Difficult Area to Study

Given that research in the area of crisis response and communication involves studying unexpected phenomena that impact people negatively, challenges often include the sensitive, disruptive nature of what’s being studied; getting the proper informed participant consent; gathering data during disruptive, transient events; among others – more research is needed in this area (Dabner, 2011), especially in regards to social media.

According to Mazer, et al. (2015), communication elements still receive very little attention in school crisis management plans (Barker & Yoder, 2012), which might otherwise include security, maintenance and logistical instructions to follow during the event of a crisis.

Despite evidence from real events that social media can be a priceless communication tool during a crisis event, research indicates that many school crisis plans don’t even address the management of social media efforts as a part of an emergency communications plan (Mazer, et al., 2015). Those that do can look to how other institutions have handled these types of situations in real life in order to model their plans (Mastrodicasa, 2008).


Case Studies

Natural disasters. In response to a 7.1 magnitude earthquake, which struck the Canterbury region in the South Island of New Zealand on September 4, 2010, the University of Canterbury and community utilized social media – including Facebook, YouTube and Flickr – to communicate information to its stakeholders and the public (Dabner, 2011).

Although the university closed for two weeks following the earthquake, information was made readily available on the university’s website, in addition to a Facebook page that was created to enable dialogue and information sharing (Dabner, 2011).

The earthquake struck at 4:35 a.m. on Saturday, September 4, 2010, and within half an hour of the event, the university’s emergency management plan was in action (Dabner, 2011, p 73). The first update was posted at 7:40 a.m. that same day. Hundreds of emails had gone out and the website, specifically an area filled with earthquake resources named UC Re-start, provided for one-way communication, but no there was no means of networked communication (Dabner, 2011, p. 73).

“The creation of a dedicated Facebook site was one idea suggested” (Dabner, 2011, p. 73). That page became known as the UC Quake Recovery Site on Facebook, which, at its peak on April 12, 2010, had 5,403 “likes” (Dabner, 2011, p. 74). UC YouTube and Twitter were also utilized (Dabner, 2011, p. 74). Audiences for the page included current and former staff and students, parents, student peers from other universities, community-based workers and social service agencies (Dabner, 2011, p. 74).

Over time, social media users added their own messaging and resources that could be utilized, in addition to the university’s resources (Dabner, 2011, p. 74). After three months, the Facebook site included 118 links to resources – all the content from the university’s website, in addition to the crowd-sourced links (Dabner, 2011, p. 75). Sociologist Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, said the Internet revolution has caused formerly linear communications plans to evolve into communications webs (Winerman, 2009, p. 378).

Messages regarding cleanup and other earthquake-related sites and material, questions, words of encouragement and more continued to be shared on the university’s website and on the Facebook page until November 19, when the last posts were made (Dabner, 2011, p. 73).

Following the event, Director of Communications Lynne McClelland suggested that social media remain a part of the university’s ongoing strategy as a supplemental means of communicating with stakeholders and the public (Dabner, 2011, p. 75). In 2011, after another earthquake, the university again utilized the website and the Facebook page as main portals for communications (Dabner, 2011, p. 76).

Campus violence. In less than three hours in the morning of April 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people before committing suicide on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, or Virginia Tech. Facebook was a go-to for critical information during (Winerman, 2009) and important information and campus activities following the crisis (Malizia, et al., 2011)

According to Winerman (2009), much of the information being posted was accurate and self-correcting. Vague posters of information were asked for clarification, and sources identified themselves when sharing the name of a victim (Winerman, 2009). In fact, students and parents were able to use Wikipedia to create a list of the victims even before the official release from the university (Dabner, 2011).

Virginia Tech, meanwhile, sent information to its stakeholders via the college’s website, mass emails to university accounts, phone messages to campus phones and media outlets including radio, television, and print (Mastrodicasa, 2008). One complaint was that the email arrived in some inboxes two hours after the shooting (Mastrodicasa, 2008).

On Facebook, more than 500 groups popped up – from tributes to victims to issue-oriented groups centered on gun control or mental health (Mastrodicasa, 2008). People changed their profile photos in support of the school and its victims (Mastrodicasa, 2008).

Parents posted about their concerns for students (Mazer, et al., 2015). Students posted about their safety, about their friends, and about details regarding the shooting (Mazer, et al., 2015). The highest volume was posted in the hour following the incident (Mazer, et al., 2015).

After the shooting at Virginia Tech, other schools took a look at their emergency management systems and considered their communications options (Mastrodicasa, 2008). Some called for faculty and staff training to recognize the warning signs of a possible impending crisis (Mastrodicasa, 2008). At Virginia Tech, a new VT Alerts system was implemented, which is a voluntary system that sends voice messages, instant messages through AOL, Yahoo and MSN, and emails to both VT official email accounts and personal email accounts (Mastrodicasa, 2008).

Internet and Mobile Preferences

Cell phone technology and text messages are a rising preferred form of communication during a crisis. During the 1999 collapse of a bonfire on the campus Texas A&M, news spread via mobile even before families could be notified of the incident (Mastrodicasa, 2008). Text messages are most convenient communication method according to 45 percent of the population (Agozzino & Kaiser, 2014).

Some campuses are developing texting capabilities in-house, or working with third party vendors to enable this mode of communication during crisis events. Students from the “net generation” are even willing to give out their personal cell phone numbers in the interest of safety (Mastrodicasa, 2008). However, one drawback is the number of messages that institutions are able to send at one time. For example, if an institution is only able to send 1800 texts/minute, it would still take 30 minutes to reach 50,000 (Mastrodicasa, 2008), which is far too long during an emergency.

At St. John’s University in Queens, NY in September 2007, text messaging was used successfully to notify faculty and students of a gunman on campus. Six minutes after the message went out, the gunman was arrested (Mastrodicasa, 2008). However, only two months later, Louisiana State University used its new system to send texts to 8,400 students after two students were shot to death, and some of the messages were never delivered due to a technical error (Mastrodicasa, 2008).

A 2013 Gallup poll showed that American adults prefer the Internet as a source of information, while a 2011 Nielsen poll shows that Americans spend 22 percent of their online time using social media (Mazer, et al., 2015). “For parents, emergency responders, media and the general public, social media can quickly become the prominent information source during an active shooter event” (Mazer, et al., 2015). And social media is not limited as to the number of messages that can be sent.

However, sometimes, even these capabilities aren’t available due to the nature of the crisis, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When the hurricane caused massive destruction from Alabama to Louisiana, power lines and cell towers were affected (Mastrodicasa, 2008). Landlines became primary modes of communication and help from other nearby institutions that still had certain tech capabilities and could help provide an integrated response were lifesavers (Mastrodicasa, 2008).

CNN Effect

As technology evolves, it offers new opportunities and new challenges for communications professionals, which over time refine an educational institution’s obligations for communicating to stakeholders during a crisis (Mastrodicasa, 2008). As today’s traditional-aged college students are part of the “net generation” and are increasingly more comfortable and reliant on technology (Mastrodicasa, 2008), their parents also play a greater role in their lives than the parents of students from generations before (Mastrodicasa, 2008). The “CNN-effect” or 24-hour-news coverage, requires communications professionals to act fast during crisis situations. According to Mastrodicasa (2008), speed is the number one factor in determining the efficiency of communications during a crisis.

Benefits of Social Media Use During a Crisis

Evolving communications technologies are creating new opportunities, as well as new challenges, for communications professionals.

“During or immediately after an emergency, there is a huge number of social interactions taking place: people communicating the emergency status with others; damages evaluation, information requests about relatives, and so on” (Malizia, et al., 2011). These non-official back-channel communications become more and more widespread as people take emergency communications into their own hands, either independently, or in conjunction with official emergency management (Malizia, et al., 2011).

Location-based information – text and multimedia – coming from social media and online channels via mobile devices contain valuable metadata that can provide even more useful information, in addition to the message’s content itself (Malizia, et al., 2011). By collecting and merging messages and posts, photos and other media coming from victims and bystanders during a crisis into maps or a mashup program, communications professionals can create a location-based online environment paralleling the real one (Malizia, et al., 2011). This can benefit many stakeholders and even help emergency responders do their job better.

During the California wildfires in Fall 2007, many turned to local media channels, who were taking tips from local residents over the Internet (Winerman, 2009). Google maps were then created based on the locations in the content’s metadata to help people visualize the crowd sourced information. During the London bombings in 2005, users utilized photos albums on Flickr to share photos with the community but also to inform the world of what was going on (Malizia, et al., 2011). Hashtags, or keywords with a hash symbol before them typically utilized on Twitter, make this information more easily searchable and can help group information together on the web (Malizia, et al., 2011).

Potential Problems

In addition to its benefits, however, the use of social media in crisis communications has its potential for problems. For one, evolving technologies for communication create and perpetuate the expectation of instant communication, which has risen to a challenging level (Mastrodicasa, 2008).

On the communications professional’s side, there is typically little control over the public response to such messaging (Snoeijers, Poels & Nicolay, 2014). Giving too little information makes an organization look unprepared, while too much information makes it seem like the organization is overreacting (Agozzino & Kaiser, 2014).

Miscommunication and poor management of media are also potential problems caused by the use of social media during crisis situations (Mazer, et al., 2015). Mazer, et al., say a number of rumors circulated after the Albemarle High School and Fern Creek High School (in Louisville, Kentucky) shooting events. Because of the speed at which posts are published on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, there is a high instance of mistakes that get published and then shared, perpetuating the misinformation, which can be corrected, but never erased from the record. After the Albemarle shooting for example, a tweet that contained the incorrect location as Charlottesville, VA was shared, when the incident occurred in North Carolina (Mazer, et al., 2015). Even though a correction was posted, it was already too late. The misinformation had spread to the point that #VA had become a topic on Twitter associated with the event (Mazer, et al., 2015).


More research is needed to fully understand social media’s role in crisis communications, but there seems to be a shift happening. Crisis communications are relying more and more on social media and less on traditional modes of communications (Agozzino & Kaiser, 2014). It seems apparent that sites like Facebook and Twitter, with their instantaneous nature, naturally lend themselves to peer-to-peer crisis communications. Therefore, communications professionals can do themselves a favor by getting on board early and working Facebook and Twitter into their Emergency Notification System plans.

While crisis communications are difficult to study, looking at how social media has been utilized during past events is helpful. After doing so, I have concluded that direct messaging via voice, email and text are a good first layer of communication in these ENS plans, but should be supplemented by utilizing the controlled environment of school websites and the rich capabilities of social media channels to address public uncertainty (Agozzino & Kaiser, 2014). Blogs are also an innovative way to communicate with stakeholders during a crisis (Agozzino & Kaiser, 2014) and can work hand in hand with a school’s website, Facebook and Twitter accounts to manage service, responsiveness, and relationships with stakeholders.

ENS plans should further establish goals for a school’s social media use and who will be in charge of posting messages (Agozzino & Kaiser, 2014) and responding to stakeholders’ questions and requests on those channels. The key is to balance this social media interaction for the purpose of arming stakeholders with the information they need, with the organization’s desire for a sense of control (Agozzino & Kaiser, 2014) and maintenance of the brand. Methods and guidelines for what messages to disseminate over social media and how to respond to the public are an important part of any communications plan for dealing with a campus crisis.

During a crisis and even after, a communications team should be on hand to monitor social media communications to make sure questions are being answered and comments are being addressed. It is also a good idea for a communications team to aggregate helpful information being shared by the public so that it can be utilized by a larger audience.

Lastly, the administration of a college or university should be key participants in the development and management of crisis plans ongoing, as new technologies emerge and old technologies change. Because that is technology’s nature, crisis plans should be updated as a routine after their use (Agozzino & Kaiser, 2014), or even annually. The key is to keep up with the trends and technology, but to be careful not to get too far ahead of the curve, or stakeholders won’t be able to benefit.


Agozzino, A., & Kaiser, C. (2014). Social media as a practical approach in engaging key stakeholders in school crisis communications plans. Journal of School Public Relations, 33, 44-62.

Barker, G.G., & Yoder, M. E. (2012). The Virginia Tech shootings: Implications for crisis communication in the educational setting. The Journal of School Public Relations, 32, 78-101.

Dabner, N. (2011). ‘Breaking ground’ in the use of social media: A case study of a university earthquake response to inform educational design with Facebook. Internet and Higher Education, 15, 69-78.

Lachlan, K.A., Spence, P.R., Lin, X., Najarian, K.M., & Del Greco, M. (2014). Screaming into the wind: Examining the volume and content of tweets associated with Hurricane Sandy. Communication Studies, 65, 500-518.

Malizia, A., Bellucici, A., Diaz, P., Aedo, I., Levialdi, S. (2011). eStorys: A visual storyboard system supporting back-channel communication for emergencies. Journal of Video Languages and Computing, 22, 150-169.

Mastrodicasa, J. (2008). Technology use in a campus crisis. New Directions for Student Services, 124. doi:10.1002/ss.294

Mazer, J.P., Thompson, B., Cherry, J., Russell, M., Payne, H.J., Kirby, E.G., & Pfohl, W. (2015). Communication in the face of a school crisis: Examining the volume and content of social media mentions during active shooter incidents. Computers in Human Behavior, 53, 238-248. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2015.06.040.

Pempek, T.A., Yermolayeva, Y.A., & Calvert, S.L. (2009). College students’ social networking experiences on Facebook. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 30, 227–238.

Snoeijers, E.M., Poels, K., & Nicolay, C. (2014). #universitycrisis: The impact of social media type, source, and information on student responses toward a university crisis. Social Science Computer Review, 32(5), 647-665.

Tiedje, C. (2011). Social media timeline. Sun Sentinel. Retrieved from

Utz, S., Schultz, F., & Glocka, S. (2013). Crisis communication online: How medium, crisis type and emotions affected public reactions in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Public Relations Review, 39, 40–46.

Winerman, L. (2009). Crisis communication. Nature, 457(7228), 376-378. DOI: 10.1038/457376a.

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