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Research reveals effective social media crisis communication strategies during COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-generation crisis with lasting economic and societal consequences. Crises and disasters often bring unpredictable catastrophic changes to the market. Yet, effective management of a crisis can help businesses reduce the event's negative impacts and shorten the recovery time.

As the global economy begins to recover, businesses are making changes to adapt to the post-pandemic world. For example, more companies now let employees work from home permanently.

When people work remotely and classes are taught online, social media plays an even more critical role in crisis communication than before. Research identifying the types of social media messages that get people's attention during the COVID-19 pandemic is timely and helpful in supporting business decisions regarding crisis communication.

The empirical study about crisis communication strategies on social media

I worked with Drs. Jungwoo Lee at Yonsei University in South Korea and Spring Han at Kyoto University in Japan on a project entitled "Crisis communication on social media: What types of COVID-19 messages get the attention?" We published our work in the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly.

The research framework

We framed our investigation under the Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT). SCCT was introduced to help organizations select the appropriate communication strategies to minimize a crisis' threat to their reputations, depending on the level of responsibilities that the public attributes to the organization. According to SCCT, when an organization holds no responsibilities for the COVID-19 crisis, bolstering posture/strategies will be most pertinent when communicating with its stakeholders, such as:

  • Reminding — To remind its stakeholders about the organization's good work in the past. For example, a hotel chain may share updates about its leadership position in providing exceptional customer service.
  • Ingratiation — To praise its stakeholders' work, contributions, or efforts. For instance, a restaurant may post updates about how its staff works with other community members to cope with a crisis.
  • Victimage — To explain how the organization is also a victim of a crisis. For example, an airline may share news about the pandemic's devastating impacts on the industry or the hardship it experiences during a crisis.

The research questions

Drawing from SCCT and relevant literature, we expected most companies would use Reminding, Ingratiation, and Victimage strategies to communicate with their stakeholders on social media. Additionally, they would heavily utilize photos as the means for content sharing. We focused our research setting in the hospitality industry, aiming to answer four research questions:

  1. Do hospitality companies also use the Reminding, Ingratiation, and Victimage strategies to communicate with their stakeholders about the COVID-19 crisis?
  2. Do hospitality companies share content in photos more frequently than in other forms of media, such as videos, hyperlinks, or pure text?
  3. What are internet users’ reactions toward hospitality companies' COVID-19 messages compared to the non-COVID-19 messages?
  4. What are internet users’ reactions to hospitality companies' social media messages in different media types?

The data and the analysis

We retrieved 657 Facebook and 754 Twitter messages initiated by eight of the world’s largest hotel chains between January 1 and June 19, 2020. These eight hotel chains include Marriott, Hilton, IHG, Wyndham, Choice Hotels, Best Western, Hyatt, and Radisson, a portfolio of over 5.26 million hotel rooms in the global lodging market. After a few preliminary analyses, we trained two graduate students to code all messages into six (6) message types:

  • Prevention — To inform an organization’s stakeholders of the proactive procedures taken or will be taken to cope with a crisis. For example, a hotel may inform travelers that it has adopted enhanced hygiene protocols to ensure every room is thoroughly cleaned.
  • Reminding
  • Ingratiation
  • Victimage
  • Updates — To inform an organization’s stakeholders about its adjustments in operations due to the crisis. For instance, a hotel may update its cancelation policy or extend the expiration date of its loyal customers’ elite status and reward benefits/points.
  • Non-COVID-19 messages — To share other updates that are not relevant to the COVID-19 crisis, such as a promotional offer or showing support to the #BLM movement.

After confirming the intercoder reliability, we used the z scores of reactions/likes, comments, and shares/retweets to measure internet users’ attention to a Facebook/Twitter message. Finally, we performed a series of descriptive analyses as well as ANOVA and post-hoc analyses to answer the four research questions.

The key research findings

  1. The types of COVID-19 messages shared by the hotel chains

    We observed a sharp decline in information sharing by the eight hotel chains after WHO announced the global pandemic in March 2020. Furthermore, it was also not until March 2020 that the eight hotel chains began sharing updates about COVID-19, even though the first coronavirus case was first reported in China back in December 2019, and the virus quickly spread to other countries before March 2020.

  2. IHG and Hyatt shared the most COVID-19 updates, but Marriott, being the world’s largest hotel chain, only published a total of six COVID-19 messages on Facebook and Twitter. Ingratiation was the most used strategy by the sample, accounted for 48.06% of the 308 COVID-19 messages on both platforms, followed by Updates (30.85%)and Prevention (13.63%)Four hotel chains did not use the Reminding strategy at all. Moreover, only two hotel chains used the Victimage strategy (11 times by IHG on both platforms and once by Best Western on Facebook).

  3. The popular medium used by the hotel chains

    Photos and videos were the dominant media used by the sample. No hotel chains in the sample shared pure-text messages on Facebook. Additionally, many hotel chains shared messages in a combination of two or more media types (e.g., photos + hyperlinks, photos + hyperlinks + videos, among others). Marriott and Best Western were well versed in using images in communications. Hyatt topped the list in terms of video sharing.

  4. The types of COVID-19 messages that get the attention

    Overall, internet users paid more attention to COVID-19 messages than non-COVID-19 messages, giving COVID-19 messages more reactions/likes, comments, and shares/retweets. Among different types of COVID-19 messages, Prevention, Reminding, Ingratiation, and Updates seemed to get more attention.

  5. Visual content gets more reactions/likes, comments, and shares/retweets
    It is not surprising to observe that messages attached with videos and/or photos get more attention on Facebook and Twitter than those with hyperlinks or in pure text. The power of visual content cannot be ignored. 

The implications

We extended SCCT by introducing the Prevention strategy under the Rebuilding Posture. Unlike other cross-sectional survey studies, this research examined the real-time information exchange among an organization and its stakeholders. Its results provide insightful knowledge for businesses wanting to maintain active communications with their stakeholders on social media. We recommend managers and business owners consider the following managerial implications:

Regarding a message's content

  • Actively use social media to communicate with their stakeholders about a crisis.
  • Keep people informed about what the business is doing to cope with the crisis.
  • Although underused, remind stakeholders from time to time of the outstanding work that the business did in the past.
  • Highlight the good deeds that the stakeholders are doing to cope with the crisis and tag them if allowed (e.g., mentioning a supplier or an associate)
  • Although underused, try the Victimage strategy to see if it could also be effective.
  • Share changes and updates of operations on social media.
  • Use social media as a communication tool instead of a pure marketing outlet because stakeholders want to hear updates about COVID-19 and other concurrent events (e.g., #BLM).

Regarding media usage

  • Create short videos to communicate with the stakeholders.
  • Continue utilizing photos as the visual content.
  • Select an appealing image as a preview of a hyperlink.
  • Attach a video or photo to a message.
  • Avoid long messages; try to use 130 or fewer characters in an update, which will make it look like a "picture" on Facebook.

  • The conclusion

    Our work is not without limitations, but we believe our analysis can benefit many organizations besides those in the lodging industry. We highly encourage businesses to test if the crisis communication strategies presented in our study also work for them and, if so, in what situations. Keep in mind that one tactic might work in a unique setting but not others.

    As we are navigating through the pandemic, what types of social media messages will get people’s attention? Do you have first-hand experience to share with us?

    For example, if you are a content manager, what types of crisis communication strategies work well for your organization? If you are an active user on one or more social media platforms, what types of messages get your attention? 

    Note: This viewpoint article was first published on Multibriefs.com. The picture was also downloaded from the same webpage. 

    Comments

    1. "As we are navigating through the pandemic, what types of social media messages will get people’s attention?"

      I think that social media has become very hard to navigate and understand what will differentiate your posts from the rest of the posts on the timeline. Social media, especially instagram, has become a place of information in large quantities. Whether they be mis information or real things, there is information overload being shared. So for a social media message that needs to be heard, I would say that doing something different as far as formatting is going to get people's attention.

      " If you are an active user on one or more social media platforms, what types of messages get your attention?"

      The things that get my attention most are the things with either a lot of engagement on them (comments, likes, shares), or the things that disrupt the flow of the normal timeline activities. This is because most of social media has become watered down and the same as the past things. The things that get the attention of most are the ones that are different than the others.

      Robert Haleblian
      HRT 3500.02-1

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    4. I think social media has played a big role in publicity in Covid-19. In this crisis, people are more cautious when going out, and contact with the outside world has also decreased. I think the Internet is the hope for many companies to survive. As stated in the article, many companies in the hotel industry choose to advertise on social media to promote hotel discounts or information about Covid-19. And what measures the hotel has done to prevent Covid-19. The hotel adopts this ways to appease the guests and bring comfort to the guests. Solicit guests for the hotel and reduce the hotel’s losses. A lot of information in this article can prove the importance of social media to the hotel industry at the moment.
      HRT 3500. 02-1 Siyi Li

      ReplyDelete
    5. During the Covid-19 pandemic last year, majority of us went to school and worked from home. A lot of our time was spent on social media, checking for updates on various treatments, prevention, and data on how the virus is affecting all of us. I totally agree that hotel chains posting videos is more informative and will catch the reader’s attention more, than companies posting just links to read. People are very interested to see and read about how the hospitality industry (hotels, airlines, restaurants) is protecting its customers, should they need to go out of their “comfort zone” (their homes) for whatever reason. Other things have also happened during the pandemic, one of them is the BLM (Black Lives Matter movement). We had a BLM rally in my city, and I needed make plans in case things get out of hand, if I would join the rally, and how safe it is to do so (how many people expected to join, will there be social distancing, etc.). All these things, I was able to find information on social media and not in the TV news channels! Social media really played an important part last year as people were sharing their own experiences on this platform. It was very personal, very real, and informational, reading and watching the videos people were posting.

      Ivanna Tan: HRT 3500-01

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    6. As social media grows as the largest sector in communication, it's almost impossible to see a company not have some form of social media. Yet investing in social media comes with repercussions. In a growing society, transparency is becoming the norm, and maintaining that same standard is important on social media as well. Being able to communicate with the community shows its importance, especially shown with the 8 largest hotel chains and their SCCT. Personally, I have witnessed the importance of SCCT during the BLM movement, as that was when I witnessed the boom of visual content. Information displayed with pictures that had the likes and the comments, and after that I can personally attest that everywhere you can see visual content that provides meaning and knowledge.

      William Shin HRT 3500.01

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    7. Back when the pandemic began and lockdowns started happening everywhere, I'm pretty sure most people have spent a lot of time on social media. Whether it was for entertainment or updating yourself and the rest of your family on everything that was happening with COVID.

      Though, just like how there are pros to social media there are also cons cause everyone can literally post anything they wanted so you necessarily don't know if what you're finding on the these different platforms are true to their word or false. Therefore, causing a lot of misinformation to go around and more problems.
      Alyssa Petilla HRT 3500.01

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. Hi Alyssa,
        I totally agree that people were using social media a lot more as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic began and the lockdowns started. People were using it for both news updates and entertainment. I also agree that anyone can post anything on social media so things can be false and this does cause misinformation to spread and people can mistake this misinformation for fact. It is important to check information provided by social media to ensure that misinformation is not being spread.

        Delete
      2. Social media was already become a huge source of news before for the COVID-19 pandemic. But as we have seen as a society, the use of society media has a exploded in usage because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown it has caused. Social media evolved and expanded from just being strictly for entertainment with a little bit of news here and there to being a fully fledged news outlet option for people to read and receive information about what is happening in our society. Even though the benefit of this is people have to visit fewer outlets/websites/apps to read or receive the daily news, it makes it far easy for people to read and receive false news. I don't think social media websites/apps foresaw their platforms becoming news outlets, however, it happened because of COVID-19. I think it is crucial for these social media websites/apps to help filter out the fake news as much as possible for users to have a much clearer perspective of the world around and help people realize that not all news coming from social media is true.

        Jordan Nishida HRT 3500.02

        Delete
    8. I feel that social media platforms such as Instagram/Twitter/TikTok and News Media outlets would be the most effective at gaining people's attention. Specifically the younger generations, see as we have grown ups with technology for most of our lives, we are practically glued to our phones, and are often on social media to stay in touch with friends and trends. First-hand experience I have with this would be that as I go in Instagram and access the IGTV function, I have seen a myriad of updates about Covid-19, the shutdown as well as Vaccine updates, even ones for the booster vaccine. These videos have for sure caught my attention. Especially the ones where there is a specific account supplying the correct and decent amount of data that is interesting to read about.

      ReplyDelete
    9. Social media was already become a huge source of news before for the COVID-19 pandemic. But as we have seen as a society, the use of society media has a exploded in usage because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown it has caused. Social media evolved and expanded from just being strictly for entertainment with a little bit of news here and there to being a fully fledged news outlet option for people to read and receive information about what is happening in our society. Even though the benefit of this is people have to visit fewer outlets/websites/apps to read or receive the daily news, it makes it far easy for people to read and receive false news. I don't think social media websites/apps foresaw their platforms becoming news outlets, however, it happened because of COVID-19. I think it is crucial for these social media websites/apps to help filter out the fake news as much as possible for users to have a much clearer perspective of the world around and help people realize that not all news coming from social media is true.

      Jordan Nishida HRT 3500.02

      ReplyDelete
      Replies
      1. You are absolutely right on how social media was already a huge source before the pandemic. Although, the distinction you made between entertainment and news I personally believe is the same. It’s all entertainment made to get the most engagement from the viewer. Shared, like, reposted, comments are the communicative channels and the value units of what makes the “news” are “top posts”. Real news, fake news, or simply a post social media platforms are made for engagement with one another and organizations use these platforms to encourage engagements amongst people regardless if ethics were considered or if its beneficially good for society or not.

        Kristian Agdeppa HRT 3500.02

        Delete
    10. Thanks for your post. It's very helpful post for us. I would like to thanks for sharing this article here. business impact of COVID-19

      ReplyDelete

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