We define a crisis as a sudden and uncontrollable event that threatens the lives of a number of people. We are particularly concerned with crises that attract significant media attention. When a crisis occurs there may be a need for rapid communication of various types.
General information need: the need to find out about the crisis event. This need could be satisfied, for example, by newspapers and television news.
Personal information need: the need to ensure that certain individuals (e.g., friends, co-workers, relatives) are safe. Phone calls and emails could be used to discover this kind of information.
Information usage: people may wish to communicate about the crisis itself, rather than to find out about it. This includes:
Discussing the event as a conversation topic (e.g., talking)
Informing or warning others (e.g., via phone calls or talking; on a larger scale, organizations may use public service announcements, posters, or television advertising campaigns)
Advocating efficient solutions to the crisis (e.g., emergency service actions; prevention of similar future problems)
Various other small-scale uses, such as using the event as part of a political argument
As the above list suggests, there are many reasons for crisis-related communication, and a different set of technologies may be most appropriate for each one.
While there is no systematic body of research about crisis communication, there are many relevant individual studies. Yet, other than research confirming increased interest in traditional mass media news sources, insufficient direct information seems to be available about the information seeking behavior of individuals during a crisis (Seaton, 2005). Bucher (2002) focuses on the related issue of the impact of the Internet on news consumption during a crisis, forming several hypotheses related to the potential for the Internet to deliver news of the crisis and to increase the possible number of sources that the public can use to gain news of events. Bucher sees journalists as “guides for global information space” rather than just gatekeepers. This more active role in news making seems appropriate for bloggers, too, given previous cases of the influence of blogs on the news. However, because we are interested in communication technologies rather than news related to a crisis, we are not primarily concerned with the ways in which bloggers influence the news (Gill, 2004) through alternative “personal journalism” (Allan, 2004), eyewitness reporting (e.g., the Baghdad Blogger, Thompson, 2003) or A-list blog commentary (Trammell & Keshelashvili, 2005). Nor are we primarily concerned with the way in which debate in blogspace can form a democratic “public sphere” (Gorgura, 2004; Habermas, 1991; Honeycutt, 2005; cf. Sunstein, 2004), although both of these uses may impact the communications technologies generally used.
The field of public health includes a body of research into “crisis communication” that is primarily concerned with ensuring that effective health information is conveyed to the public in periods of crisis (Covello, 2003; Mebane, Temin, & Parvanta, 2003; Wray, Kreuter, Jacobsen, Clements, & Evans, 2004). More specifically, it focuses on situations where there is an ongoing or impending risk to the public (3b above). In any country, this kind of information would normally only be relevant to domestic crises. Government organizations also produce many official publications on this topic (e.g., Steib, 2002). The goal of crisis communication in this literature is to transmit information effectively to the public in time to maximize the possibility that people take appropriate action to ensure their safety (Keselman, Slaughter, & Patel, 2005).
Also relevant is the public relations crisis: a situation in which an organization suddenly must engage in communication to offset a surge in negative publicity. Five practical guidelines have been proposed to guide public relations strategies to minimize the risk of negative press: (1) prompt response, (2) truth/avoidance of absolutes, (3) constant flow of information, (4) concern for victims and their families, and (5) choice of appropriate spokesperson(s) (Martin & Boynton, 2005). These guidelines advise organizations in dealing with the press rather than communicating directly with the public, but a recent trend is to use the Internet for unmediated and interactive communication with the public, although this is an extra component of a traditional media-centered strategy, not a dominating piece (Taylor & Perry, 2005). Public relations exercises in crises also operate at a national level, perhaps in a similar way, with governments competing with each other to make a favorable impression through their reaction to a crisis (Zhang, 2005) or seeking to persuade the public to accept a given course of action (Hiebert, 2003).
Communications Technologies, Blogs, and the News
We include here a brief discussion of technological change in news reporting, because the news is relevant to crises, and news reporting provides an interesting case study of the interrelationship between technology and communication. Moreover, news media research illustrates the potential that crises can have in accelerating or highlighting technological change. In terms of practicalities, electronic devices, such as hand-held cameras and satellite phones, have made it much easier for reporters to gain access to real time live footage (Bennett, 2003; Higgins, 2000). This change has altered the type of news that is reported (e.g., more event-driven news, Livingston & Bennett, 2003) and the reporting frame (Entman, 1993; Livingston & Bennett, 2003), and it has helped to introduce new reporting program styles such as “action news” (Bennett, 2003) and organizations such as CNN (Livingston & Bennett, 2003; Volkmer, 1999). Embedded journalism during wars (Walsh & Barbara, 2006) is a subject of recent controversy, and the ethics of embedded journalism has generated a political debate (Thompson, 2003; Zelizer, 2005).
New technology does not only impact the reporting of “traditional” news events; it can also influence what becomes news. For example, hand-held cameras in the hands of the public can create news, such as in the case of the videotaped police beating of Rodney King (Lawrence, 2000), and can make more routine events, such as individual murders, more newsworthy (Seaton, 2005; Zelizer, 2005).
In summary, new communication technologies can influence (1) what is reported, (2) how it is reported, (3) the type of organization that reports it, (4) the program format in which it is presented, and (5) the politics of the events reported. Clearly the issue of how new technology affects the news is far from straightforward, and it would be reasonable to expect a lesser, but significant, level of complexity in the impact of new technologies upon crisis communication.
Automatic Methods for Identifying New Crisis Communication Technologies
What methods are available to identify communications technologies that people use during a crisis? Traditional social science techniques such as interviews and questionnaires could be employed and might give useful answers. In this article, however, we use automatic methods in order to assess the extent to which they can provide useful information. The advantage of automatic methods is that, if developed, they can potentially provide easier and faster access to relevant information. Moreover, the methods described here are non-intrusive.
The Web now hosts a range of sources of information that can be used to make inferences about the activities of the general public to some extent. For example, major websites often carry a list of the most read/emailed/blogged news stories, which can give insights into which news stories seem to be the most interesting. An alternative and a more general indicator of public concerns, because of its wider coverage, is Google Trends (http://www.google.com/trends). This tool shows the relative popularity of searches over the past few years and could be used to assess the popularity of known communications technologies. However, it would not give valid results. For example, entering a search term of “SMS” (Short Message Service, used mainly on small mobile devices) produces a graph of the relative popularity of this search term over the past two years. From this graph (http://www.google.com/trends?q=sms) it can be seen whether the number of SMS searches was higher than average during any given crisis. The results are fragile for two reasons, however: The number of SMS searches may not match the use of SMS (which is also true for SMS mentions in blogs); and, more importantly, there is no way of being sure whether the searches were crisis related, as opposed to being coincident with something else like the introduction of a new online free text messaging service, a news story, or a high profile advertising campaign.
A better method would be to search blogspace via a tool such as BlogPulse (http://www.blogpulse.com), which is a search engine for blogs. It operates like Google except that it is restricted to blogs and can produce a graph of the relative frequency of the search term(s) in blogspace over a period of time. The advantages over Google Trends are: There is more reason to connect a blog’s mention of activities to the activities themselves, since many bloggers blog their lives in personal journals (Herring, et al., 2004); and, most importantly, the individual blog postings can be read to assess whether they are relevant to a crisis. Nevertheless, the link between the activities of bloggers and what they blog is still problematic, and bloggers are not representative of the population in general, so making inferences about the volume of use of communication technologies via blog searching is still unreliable. This is an unavoidable limitation of the method used in this study.
A problem that most of the above methods miss is that they can only confirm trends for known technologies rather than identify unknown, new technologies. The exceptions are interviews and open-ended survey questions (e.g., “which communications technologies did you use during crisis x?”). A method has been developed that is similar to BlogPulse-style blog searching but that is not dependent on prior knowledge of the names of the communication technologies searched for: RSS scanning (Thelwall & Prabowo, 2007, to appear; Thelwall, Prabowo, & Fairclough, 2006). RSS (Rich Site Summary/Really Simple Syndication) is a set of formats for presenting information concisely. It is used on the Internet by many blogs and news websites to allow interested site visitors to check automatically for updates via an RSS aggregator program (Gill, 2005; Hammersley, 2005; Notess, 2002). Users with aggregators only need to click on the RSS or Atom icon on a site that they are interested in, and the aggregator will then inform them whenever the site is updated. This is a useful way to keep track of a number of news websites and/or blogs without having to visit them repeatedly to check if they have been updated. For a blog, the RSS “feed” is in fact a list of the most recent posts on the site. RSS feeds are useful for analyzing large numbers of blogs for purely technical reasons: It is far easier and more ethical to gather data on a large collection of blogs via their RSS feeds than directly from the blogs themselves, because the simple and compact RSS format reduces Web traffic and the load on the servers hosting the blogs.
The RSS scanning method is based on a large collection of RSS feeds that are continually monitored over a period of time in order to build a database of daily lists of postings. These databases could then be used in the same way as the BlogPulse site: to generate time series graphs of the relative frequency of any given search term, such as SMS. The RSS scanning method is not based on direct searching, however, but scans every possible search (i.e., every word in the database) and reports only the search terms that show a significant increase in usage during the monitoring period. This automatic scanning bypasses the need to know the search terms in advance but does not necessarily produce relevant words. This problem is dealt with in two ways. First, only relevant postings are scanned. This is achieved by using some key words (or a Boolean statement) relevant to the topic investigated and ignoring the non-matching posts. Second, the results are manually scanned to sift out the relevant from the irrelevant searches. In our case, this means sifting out words that do not relate to communication. Thelwall and Hellsten (2006), in a demonstration that RSS scanning can be used to extract useful information about a crisis, utilized this method to compare media discussions of the London Attacks of 2005 with media timelines of the events. The findings suggest that retrospective media timelines of crises ignored several events that were significant at the time and also downplayed the role of communication during crises.
Why would the RSS scanning method be likely to identify communication forms emerging during a crisis? The assumption, based on the example of the news, is that crises can precipitate rapid changes in the use of technology, and that any such rapid change is likely to be reflected to some extent in the personal journals of blogspace by a sudden surge in the use of the name of the technology. To give a simple example, if SMS messages were used extensively by people during a crisis to check on the safety of relatives, then we would expect some of these people to blog that they had checked by SMS that everyone was safe, and that this would lead to an overall increase in the term “SMS” in blogspace during the crisis. The RSS scanning method would then automatically identify SMS as a word with a sudden increase in usage in posts relevant to the crisis.
Note that the RSS scanning method has the same drawbacks as the BlogPulse graphs: It only reports on bloggers and relies on what bloggers decide to blog. Moreover, it is more sensitive to unusual names, and thus new technologies with common names (e.g., orange) may fail to be identified. An additional drawback of the RSS format for monitoring blogs is that it is general purpose and not exclusive to blogs: Both news feeds and blogs were central to its widespread adoption (Gill, 2005). In summary, BlogPulse and RSS scanning both have advantages and disadvantages. We do not claim here that one is clearly better than the other; only that RSS scanning is a reasonable method to use in the sense that there is not another method that is clearly superior. Moreover, we suspect that most researchers, especially casual investigators, will use BlogPulse or similar online tools; it is therefore valuable to develop alternative approaches that can shed light on the strengths and weaknesses of existing tools.