Featured research: Crisis communication with Lucinda Austin

by Jeff Merron '92 (Ph.D.)

In any health crisis, communication is key, and today’s social media give public officials, health care providers and NGOs powerful weapons to use in battling a wide variety of threats. Whether it’s the scourge of Ebola, the threat of the Zika virus, or the ongoing challenge of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, the way many people involved get the most current information needed to cope with these situations is through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms.

This has made the topic ripe for research, and UNC Assistant Professor Lucinda Austin is an important theorist, as well as one of the emerging field’s top young researchers.

Austin began teaching at UNC in July 2016. She received her Ph.D. in communication from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2011, and taught at Elon University before accepting the UNC post. Here she teaches public relations and strategic communications; her research primarily centers on the use of social media in health and crisis communications.

In a recently completed study (out for review), for example, Austin examined the use of social media in the Flint water crisis. “We were looking at both visuals and text on Instagram and Twitter,” Austin says. “We compared them to see what kinds of functions those different platforms were serving for users during the crisis.”

The result was telling. “Individuals were using Twitter more for details of the crisis, whereas Instagram was used more as a community resource,” Austin explains. People were going to Instagram to share information on where to get clean water, for example, or how to provide assistance to others in need. “We’ve found that, generally, people may go to different kinds of media, both social and traditional, for different functions,” she says.

Austin’s major work centers on the Social-Mediated Crisis Communication (SMCC) model, which she began developing with colleagues around 2010. Brooke Fisher Liu, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park had just developed — with colleague Yan Jin at the University of Georgia — the blog-mediated crisis communication model because, from the late 1990s until the early 2010s, blogs were by far the dominant form of social media. “They were looking at influencers and how people became influential bloggers. The model explored how information and rumors were spread during crises,” Austin explains.

While pursuing independent study as a doctoral student there, Austin saw an opportunity, as social media like Facebook and Twitter became dominant in the social media landscape.

“We discussed ideas for my independent study project, and I was interested in updating the model, because a lot of it was relevant to social media research. That was really the start of our work on developing a social media and crisis communication model. It was 2010, 2011, and social media was a big thing. Blogs were big, but they weren’t going to be the future of crisis communication. We were fortunate that, at the time, nobody had done a lot of theoretical work in that direction.”

The original article, on which Austin was a co-author (Yan Jin, Brooke Fisher Liu, Lucinda L. Austin), “Examining the Role of Social Media in Effective Crisis Management: The Effects of Crisis Origin, Information Form, and Source on Publics’ Crisis Responses,” was first published online in October 2011 (and in print in February 2014), and for years thereafter was the journal’s most-read article. It’s currently the second-most read article in Communication Research.

Part of the theory’s appeal, and the research’s popularity, is a matter of great timing.

“Part of the reason for the wide readership was because there was a void at the time — we hit a really good sweet spot in terms of research,” says Austin. Another article, “How Audiences Seek Out Crisis Information: Exploring the Social-Mediated Crisis Communication Model,” published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research in early 2012, has also been among the most downloaded for that journal.

Both social and traditional media are changing at a rapid clip, and in ways that are often difficult, if not impossible, to predict. But Austin believes her work has staying power, because many of the underlying issues have been part of mass communication theory and research since the field’s early days. For example, social media information sharing is, fundamentally, about spreading the news. And “fake news” is, says Austin, “really about rumor generation and spread, even if it has a different term now.”

Because Austin’s work is well-grounded on earlier theory while largely focused on current, widely adopted new media, it has immediate practical applications. Communicators facing a crisis may well use the SMCC model, either directly or indirectly, while crafting an emergency response plan. The Health Communication Capacity Collaborative, based out of Johns Hopkins, for example, includes the model in its social and behavior change communication (SBCC) emergency preparedness implementation toolkit, which is aimed at national and international leaders.

And Austin is now in the process of studying how communications play out during infectious disease outbreaks. She received a Junior Faculty Development Award to conduct a large-scale national survey examining how different publics seek, process and share information on health threats. Among the factors she’ll be looking at are how behaviors may differ depending on threat severity, and how much responsibility individuals believe they have in the situation, compared to what is perceived as the purview of health organizations and governmental agencies.

The standing of traditional media is, of course, both unsettled and rapidly changing. At the same time, the current social media landscape poses many problems — fake news and cyberbullying, to name just a few — but Austin believes the potential positives outweigh the negatives for communicators and their intended audiences.

“Social media gives publics more power and more voice and more interactive potential with organizations,” she says. "In PR theory and in the field, for a long time we’ve been saying ‘we need more dialogue between organizations and publics, we need more two-way communication.’ Now we have greater potential for that. The tools themselves are not inherently good or bad; it’s what we do with them that counts.”

Austin recently published the book "Social Media and Crisis Communication?" described as a "unique and timely contribution to the field of crisis communication by addressing how social media are influencing the practice of crisis communication."

Jeff Merron is a freelance journalist who was a staff writer for ESPN.com, a columnist for Macworld.com and a contributer to many other websites as well as national publications. He received his Ph.D. in mass communication from UNC in 1992.