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PR officials should utilize Twitter, social media during crises to gauge public response

July 28, 2016

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Previous research on crisis communications strategies has examined how and why organizations develop specific stances toward their audiences or "publics" during crisis situations. However, little is known about how various audiences themselves develop attitudes toward organizations during such crises. Now, researchers from the University of Missouri School of Journalism have found that unorganized and semi-organized groups use Twitter to communicate and develop stances toward organizations who are experiencing crises. These findings can provide public relations practitioners with ways to diagnose a variety of publics' stances toward specific issues, allowing them to craft messages aimed at specific audiences.

MU doctoral students Douglas Wilbur and Danielle Myers examined more than 1,000 tweets surrounding the 2015 release of the motion picture "Concussion," which portrays the National Football League (NFL) in a negative light with regard to the issue of concussions in football. In the study, the researchers used Contingency Theory, created by MU School of Journalism professor Glen Cameron, as a tool to diagnose different publics' (i.e. journalists, health professionals, athletes, sports fans) stances toward the movie, the NFL and the concussion issue. This theory was developed for determining how and why PR professionals and organizations choose their public responses during crises. In this study, the MU researchers successfully applied this theory to different public groups, rather than organizations, to understand if and how diverse, semi-organized groups develop stances toward ongoing issues.

They found that even with little to no organization, different groups of people developed varying stances toward the movie and the NFL and the concussion issue through Twitter. They found that health professionals seemed to develop a positive stance toward the movie and the health issues brought to the forefront, promoting the need for continued brain trauma research. Current and former athletes as well as coaches appeared to support that the movie raised awareness of concussions in sports. Other groups the researchers observed were lawyers discussing legal issues involving the NFL concussion crisis and a general lay public, which developed very negative opinions of the NFL, and positive opinions of the movie.

"This study sheds light on how large groups of relatively unorganized people on Twitter can come together to develop specific attitudes and stances toward organizations or topics and issues," Myers said. "By using Contingency Theory to examine how this process works, the study gives public relations professionals a road map for how to read the room in terms of what people are saying about their organization. They then can better respond with messages that directly address the concerns people have during organizational crises."

The researchers recommend that PR professionals monitor Twitter closely during crises to see how different groups of people are responding to the crisis and what underlying themes influence and shape these attitudes The PR practitioners can then use that information to craft customized messages that better resonate with each specific group of people.

"Journalists and marketers have already been using Twitter for similar purposes," Wilbur said. "PR professionals seem to be behind the curve in this regard and this study shows how using this theory with Twitter can be a very valuable tool."

This study was published in Journal of US-China Public Administration.
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University of Missouri-Columbia

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