#Irma – Issues of Trust When Communicating During Disasters. The Case of Hurricane Irma 2017

Friday, 20 July 2018: 11:00
Oral Presentation
Stefanie WAHL, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
Thomas KOX, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
Lars GERHOLD, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
As a crucial part of disaster response and recovery, emergency management agencies (EMAs) need to inform the public about the ongoing situation (Beneito-Montagut et al., 2013). Especially, social media technologies such as Twitter serve can be used to quickly share information on the actual situation with the public, but also to receive relevant information, e.g. from people in the affected area (Alexander, 2014; Starbird et al., 2010). This requires both emergency managers and the public to trust (cf. Meyer et al., 1995) in each other as reliable information sources (Hughes & Chauhan, 2015). Nevertheless, situation information can include different kinds of uncertainties, e.g. referring to non-knowledge or stochastic variability. This holds true for weather-related disaster situations such as information regarding hurricane pathways or flooded areas. At the same time, rumors or false information can be easily distributed via Twitter (Mendoza et al., 2010).

We thus ask how EMAs deal with uncertain, unverified or false information during a disaster situation. For further illustration of their communication strategies, we investigated crisis communication efforts during “Irma”, a category 5 hurricane, which affected the Caribbean and Southern USA in 2017 as one of the most powerful hurricanes during the last years (NOAA, 2017). Therefore, we conducted a mixed-method study by combining qualitative expert interviews on crisis communication strategies of EMAs in the USA with a content analysis of twitter data.

Results show that EMAs seek to establish themselves as a trustworthy source of information, e.g. by constantly providing updates and clarifications of the ongoing situation. For information outside their domain, they refer to other credible sources. They counter rumors or false information by using rumor control webpages or specific hashtags (#RumorControl).

Based on our findings, we discuss and derive recommendations to further improve trust building among EMAs and the public during disaster management.