Social Media and Crisis Communications: A Survey of Local Governments in Florida

Photo of someone using social media on phone
By Dr. Matthew Collins, Associate Faculty member at Post University. The following article has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Social media platforms are increasingly being used by public agencies and emergency managers to communicate with the public in times of crisis. However, while the adoption of these technologies has been well documented at the federal level, little is known empirically about the extent to which social media are being used for emergency management communications by local agencies, and less still is known about how rates of adoption vary based on the organizational and demographic characteristics of local municipalities.

The authors’ exploratory study provides an empirical analysis of social media use by local municipalities in the State of Florida and examines the organizational and demographic factors related to social media adoption for emergency and crisis communications. The study suggests that social media are still underused by local agencies in many regards.

Findings also indicate that larger municipalities which serve younger, more highly educated populations are more likely to adopt social media for crisis communications, while agencies representing traditionally under-served populations are less likely to utilize social media for these same purposes.

There are opportunities for future research which could considerably improve the knowledge base in this area.

For starters, this study is based exclusively on quantitative analysis, attempting to measure the extent to which local municipalities are employing social media to disseminate emergency information, as well as which platforms are most prominent, and which institutional/demographic factors influence the likelihood of adoption.

A more qualitative analysis of social media posts could provide further insight into the quality and effectiveness of these communications. These efforts could improve crisis communications at the local level and provide a foundation of knowledge upon which public agencies could develop social media strategies and best practices for future use.

The current study was also limited by data availability issues, as many of the demographic variables were only available at the county level. Future studies might consider an original data collection strategy and/or a county level analysis in order to ensure more valid demographic comparisons.

While the benefits of social media for emergency management and crisis communications appear to be substantial, the results of this study concur with recent suggestions that the rate of adoption among local government agencies has been slow, lagging behind that of both federal agencies and the private sector.

And, while organizational strategies exist for effectively integrating social media into crisis communications, adoption appears to be slowed in many instances by both a lack of resources and a digital skills deficit, whereby public administrators and emergency responders lack the knowledge and formal training necessary to get the most out of social media communications and engage the citizenry through these platforms in a manner consistent with public expectations.

In order to develop a well-trained workforce, prepared to effectively engage the public through social media in times of emergency, a more deliberate effort on the part of practitioner-oriented, academic programs in the areas of public administration and emergency management is needed. Maturation will invariably occur with time, and formal educational efforts to improve social media knowledge should help to accelerate the adoption and effective use of social media as a crisis communication tool.

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