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PhD Thesis: Crisis brings out five participator profiles in social media

29.12.2016

Estonian Government communication advisor Päivi Tampere from the Baltic Film, Media, Arts and Communication School defended her doctoral thesis on the developments of relations between organisations and publics during crisis on 20 December. The thesis focuses on three case studies: Swine Flu, the Fukushima Nuclear Plant accident and they boycott of local Rimi shops.

The thesis found that during a crisis, five participator profiles emerge in social media: Information Providers, Askers or Worrywarts, Sceptics, Scaremongers and Authority Defenders. “The Sceptics were critical about the organisation in question, the scaremongers speculated and spread erroneous information on the subject, while the defenders protected the organisation in crisis,” Tampere explained.

Positive and protective comments reflected high levels of trust. “These commentators believed in the officials’ ability to handle the crisis and are the perfect public to the organisation. They need no convincing and do not panic or argue the officials in any way,” she added.

Another simple public for the officials is made up of people with a high level of trust, but also a high level of risk perception. “Even though this group may be worried about risks, it is fairly easy to have a dialogue with them, as they trust the officials. The officials act here as the fulfillers of expectations, guaranteeing the public’s safety in a crisis situation,” the author said. The problem groups for any organisation are sceptics and scaremongers. The thesis shows that sceptics do not trust the officials, but neither do they perceive risk. Thus, they do not believe in what the officials do nor do they expect any defence from them.

In addition, the thesis showed that dialogue in social media does not lead to a consensus or a common understanding of the crisis at hand, but the various channels pave way to massive self-communication. “People do not share their viewpoints to understand each other or to understand others, but rather as a form of self-expression,” Tampere said.

The thesis shows that the relationship between the organisation and its publics has many challenges in a networked world, such as the slow reaction time of crisis-handling organisations, the difference in knowledge between experts and the people, the ambiguity and ad-hoc nature of online groups and legal limitations that do not allow communicators to contradict or comment on information on social media. The organisations do not control the discussions on social media, no matter how actively the participate. They can, however, benefit from social media, as they can collect opinions, understandings and argumentations from their publics, and later use it to formulate their messages.

The Doctoral Thesis “Stakeholders as Crisis Communicators – Flow of Communication Power from Organizations to Publics” was supervised by Professor Kaja Tampere of Tallinn University. Her opponents were Professor Timothy Coombs from Texas A&M University, and Professor Triin Vihalemm from Tartu University. The full Thesis is available at the Tallinn University Academic Library e-vault ETERA.