How You Doin’? Government Comparison of Social Media Policy in Crisis

– Executive Summary

This thesis examines the critical role of United States (US) local government agencies in conveying life safety messages during emergencies, with a focus on the shifting landscape toward social media as a primary communication channel. It acknowledges the generational differences in media consumption and the overarching trend of declining trust in traditional media, underscoring the urgency for local agencies to adopt new strategies to effectively engage the public in crisis.

The study begins by addressing the problem of how life safety messaging can be optimized through social media to prompt public action, given the broad transition of the US population to these platforms for information, especially in emergency situations. This brings up two questions, “How do government agencies utilize social media platforms for life safety messaging?” and “What is the efficacy of these strategies in motivating citizen behavior?”

The research employs a methodical comparative case study to scrutinize communication messaging during three emergency events: the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the 2017 Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest Festival mass shooting, and  Hurricane Florence in Washington, DC in 2018. The study draws on Kathleen Eisenhardt’s approach to comparative case analysis, facilitating the synthesis of qualitative research to guide policy recommendations.

The background explores the exponential growth of social media reliance over the past two decades and the consequent challenges for local governments in disseminating critical messages effectively. The literature review reflects on the evolution of communication technologies and the current social media landscape.

The analysis shows that successful crisis communication is related to adherence to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) best practices, as well as using images and expanding the selection of appropriate social media platforms to engage with the public. 

The thesis proposes several local and national level recommendations for US government agencies. First, local government agencies should continue to apply FEMA’s crisis communication best practices rigorously. Second, local government agencies should integrate imagery into life safety messaging to harness emotional impact for better compliance. Third, local government agencies should expand the use of a diverse range of current and popular social media platforms to ensure wide and effective reach. Finally, on a national level, FEMA should enhance the Emergency Management Accreditation Program’s (EMAP) requirements to include mandates for the use of images in life safety messaging.

The thesis concludes that the incorporation of strategic social media practices is essential for effective life safety messaging during emergencies. It emphasizes that local government agencies must be agile and adaptive to the changing digital media environment to maintain public safety and encourage appropriate public response during crises. The thesis outlines avenues for future research, including the measurement of success for new best practices, the full assessment of the accreditation process, and a comparative case analysis of life safety messaging post-2020 in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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