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The diffusion of social media in crisis response strategy.


social media has taken the consumer market by storm with applications for services such as Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, and Facebook proliferating daily. While the uses of such media is typically sales, marketing and entertainment related, one area that has yet to be studied for use of social media in crisis response strategy is the chemical manufacturing industry. This study sought to explore the diffusion of social media in crisis event planning. The paper begins with a discussion of diffusion theory and progresses to the use of social media in newsrooms across the country. Crisis events are discussed and the method and findings from a research effort are presented.

Review of the Literature

According to Rogers (1995), diffusion is "the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system" (p.5). There are five social change elements of diffusion innovation: 1) the innovation itself- the idea, practice or object that is perceived as new by those who face a decision about adopting it. What is interesting in this stage is that the innovation can be perceived to be different from the previous iteration and the user must make the decision as to whether it is a relative advantage over the earlier version of the innovation before he or she will consider adopting it. Another aspect of the innovation is its compatibility or consistence with the values, experiences and needs of potential adopters. Complexity, trailability and observability are also considerations that impact diffusion.

The second component of social change elements of diffusion is the communication channel or the channel through which a message about an innovation is shared. When cellular telephones were first introduced in the consumer market, do you remember looking at someone with a cell telephone and wondering with whom she was speaking? The national advertising campaigns hadn't launched and most of us observed others using cell telephones before we spoke to others about the efficiency or effectiveness of the cell.

The third component is time. Time affects the diffusion process in several ways: awareness to confirmation, the measure of speed with which the innovation is adopted and the point in time at which adoption occurs relative to adoption by others in the social system. Rogers has developed a continuum of adopters that range from laggards or those who are unlikely to adopt at any point in time to the innovators or those who adopt the innovation when it is first introduced in the marketplace. The innovators are the gatekeepers in the decision process. Early adopters follow the innovators and their adoption decision is typically rooted in personal opinions expressed by colleagues and friends. Following the early adopters is the early majority or those who are at the center of the scale. It appears economics and the number of users influences the purchase decision. The late majority tend to have scarce resources and typically wait until the cost has dropped significantly before making the purchase and thus, adopting the innovation. If you waited until VHS playback machines were selling for approximately $49.00 to adopt the DVD player, you're likely a late adopter.

The fourth component of the social change elements of diffusion is the social system or the boundary within which an innovation diffuses. There are norms that guide tolerable behavior in the social system and typically opinion leaders who guide adoption rate, purchase and use decisions. in the face-to-face setting, opinion leaders are identified as cosmopolitans or locals (Schramm, 1969) whereas in the electronic environment, e-fluentials[R] (Burson-Marstellar, 2005). Rogers (1983) indicated that the diffusion process is largely a communication process of information seeking and processing activity. Teenagers were the primary target for the diffusion of the MP3 player and iPod seized the market shortly after this technology began to diffuse. Eventually, adults adopted the MP3 player as a music storage device.

From an organizational decision-making perspective, there are steps the organization follows to determine to adopt an innovation. The first step is general awareness of the innovation. A potential user learns about the existence of an innovation and gains understanding of how it functions. For example, Twitter is typically used with electronic communication involving computer or telephony characterizes awareness knowledge. Principles knowledge describes information retrieved about the concepts underlying the functionality of the innovation - what devices are needed to support the innovation and how-to knowledge focuses on how the user actually operates the innovation. The potential user must then be persuaded about adoption. This step can be favorable or unfavorable attitudes about the innovation. The third step focuses on making a decision either way about the innovation. If the decision is favorable, the user will use the innovation. in the last step, the user will confirm that a wise or poor adoption decision was made. Rogers coined the term "digital divide" because he was concerned that those with access to technology would become the "haves" and those who didn't have the resources, exposure or access to innovations in technology would become the "have nots" and thus, another mechanism to divide individuals. While there is sufficient evidence to support that technological innovation continues and many retailers empower trialability and observability of new technologies, there is a reality that access to the technology in many cases isn't enough. Disposable income to support monthly access to software that drives the computer or cellular telephone or other device is a necessity. Thus, Roger's concern about a digital divide is a reality in 2010.

Social Media

Social media is defined as a "group of internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow for the creation and exchange of user-generated content" ( The use of alternative media such as social media to inform, persuade and entertain niche audiences is relatively new and is possible because of cluster technologies: telephony, internet, computing and software applications. Myspace, Facebook and YouTube are the more established brands in the social media market. Twitter launched several years later and took a longer period of time to diffuse. It has more recently become desirable because of the proliferation of sources and the desirability of the receiver to have short messages. Tweets or brief messages sent to users are limited to 140 characters! More recently, businesses have explored the use of social media to promote new product launches, cultivate and maintain relationships with target stakeholder groups and cultivate new users on a regular basis. "Companies that effectively leverage social media tools and platforms are realizing great sales and services benefits, which positively impact their business' bottom line and their customers' satisfaction" (Communications Today, August 2010). The beauty of social media is that information can be communicated efficiently and effectively and more organizations are expected to provide a voluminous array of information to anyone who chooses to view or visit a website. one group who has embraced electronic communication and social media is modern journalists. Journalists were once confined to coverage areas that were defined geographically and by the type of media outlet at which the journalist was employed: local, regional, national, global. Today, any journalists can have access to a news story and organizational spokesperson. Tremblay (2010) states, "traditional news media outlets are still essential--as the people who can provide reliable journalistic content, which then forms the backbone of social media links" (p. 47). The major shift in terms of information gathering is on the organization. A 2009 study by the TEKgroup found that organizational communicators "need to cater to reporters who want access to your organization's information" (p.17). The main tool or access point is the organization's online newsroom. The elements of an online newsroom are presented in Table 1.

As the number of mediated messages managed daily increase and the rules for media coverage of news events changing daily, the relationship between the journalist, the public relations practitioner and the definition of news is evolving. What makes this situation particularly interesting is that there is an assumption that an organization maintains an online newsroom for the explicit purposes of posting information for journalists' use. Thus, it would be appropriate to investigate if the online newsroom has diffused and how social media is used in today's interaction with stakeholder groups. This study will limit its focus to the diffusion of social media in crisis response strategy. An area of great interest to the researcher is the chemical manufacturing industry and the management of crisis events. Background on the industry will be explained and the section will conclude with the research questions established for this study.

Chemical Manufacturing

The chemical industry creates the majority of raw materials used in lifesaving healthcare products such as sutures, tubing, TV components, filters, scalpels and gloves ( What many people don't know is the enormity of the business: the industry employs approximately 849,000 people nationwide, and an additional five million related jobs are generated in supporting industries. The United States chemical business produces 19% of the world's chemicals and is the second largest shipper of goods along rail lines. This $674 billion dollar enterprise has earned one of the best employee safety records of any industry. According to the American Chemistry Council, "member companies have achieved an employee safety record that is more than four times safer than the average of the US manufacturing sector". This accomplishment is monumental because significant change has occurred in less than 30 years. The impetus for change was an internal desire to alter public opinion about its business practices. Plagued by a series of industry events that brought global attention to chemical manufacturing, pollution of the environment, and health concerns, the industry launched the Responsible Care[R] initiative in 1988. This public relations effort was designed to reengineer chemical manufacturing practices across the industry. In short, the effort generated the Codes of Responsible Care[R], which focused on the safe transport, preparation, use and exposure to chemicals. The industry designed a series of measurement instruments which empowered it to report on how the Codes are being implemented and the success the industry is experiencing. More recently, the Codes have taken a back seat to the new public relations campaign, Essential2Life. This campaign focuses on how chemicals improve the quality of life we have all come to enjoy. This campaign launched in 2004 and is still going strong today.

To simplify the chemical manufacturing process, it is best to liken it to cooking. Chemical manufacturing involves mixing different ingredients in bowls that are heated and cooled. The final product can be a liquid, a solid, or an ingredient that is mixed with other ingredients at a different site. Any time chemicals are being used, there exists the possibility that equipment can fail, a human can misread directions or not pay close enough attention and overfill or heat or cool too much. One mishap can create a crisis or as Lerbinger (1997) defines is "an event that brings, or has the potential for bringing, an organization into disrepute and imperils its future profitability, growth, and possibly, its very survival ... crisis delves into the soul of an organization and dissects its core identify" (p.4). There are three types of crises: victim oriented or where an organization is a victim of a crisis, such as a natural disaster or workplace violence. As such, the organization's reputation is threatened somewhat. The second type of crises is unintentional or accidental. in this crisis type, the organizational actions leading to the crisis were unintentional, such as technical accident resulting in environmental damage or equipment failure. if BP hadn't altered the equipment it was using, it would be the perfect example of an accidental crisis. The third type of crises is a preventable crisis or when an organization knowingly placed people at risk, took inappropriate actions, or violated a lay or regulation. A preventable crisis causes a severe threat to the reputation of a company. Thus, despite record improvements in safety, chemical companies can be the victim of victim-oriented and accidental crisis or the culprit behind preventable crises. in all scenarios, it is critical that the organization communicate effectively with stakeholder groups. A new way to communicate with stakeholder groups centers on the use of social media. There is no literature that links chemical company crisis response strategy and social media use. Based on the review of the literature, this study posed five research questions for investigation:

R1: How do chemical companies prepare for crisis events?

R2: How do chemical companies communicate with the media during crisis events?

R3: Do chemical companies use social media to communicate with stakeholder groups during crisis?

R4: What adopter group describes chemical company diffusion of social media in the crisis event strategy phase?

5. Who are the opinion leaders in the diffusion process?


A mixed methods approach was utilized to answer the research questions posed for this study. A survey of plant site potential crisis media responders was administered during training sessions at four domestic locations of an international chemical manufacturing company. The survey sought to identify how often the employee was trained to represent the company during crisis events, what strategy would be most appropriate to implement during a crisis event, what member of the management team would be best suited to discuss the crisis with the media and how that scenario would play out. The second method was depth interviews with corporate communications and environment, health and safety. using a semi-structured protocol, questions focused on when and how social media was adopted in the organization and if social media would be utilized during crisis response planning efforts.


After a preliminary analysis of the survey data results, the majority of respondents indicated that a proactive crisis response strategy would be best to utilize with the plant manager being the primary spokesperson for the organization. The majority of respondents had one media training. The depth interviews were highly informative and presented critical information for the research to understand the complexity of the organization and its manufacturing sites. The sites are situated in highly urban and highly rural areas. Thus, a one size fits all policy exists, but is enacted differently based on the capabilities of the local emergency management team and the relationship plant management shares with the community. survey results and depth interview analysis provided the foundation for the following responses:

R1: How do chemical companies prepare for crisis events? Across the globe, manufacturing sites rehearse a monthly drill in conjunction with safety talks that occur regularly with employees. Table top drills occur regularly as well. Approximately every two years, a full scaled up drill is rehearsed with off-site responders and a mock media person. The scaled-up drills provide valuable opportunities to understand strengths and identify areas for improvement before a real crisis occurs.

R2: How do chemical companies communicate with the media during crisis events? using the current crisis response protocol, a statement is prepared and delivered to the media upon their request. There is no posting to corporate websites or use of social media. The plant manager is the desired spokesperson with a member of Environmental, Health and Safety suggested if the crisis involves an off-site release. The statement is approved by the corporate communications person prior to release to local media.

R3: Do chemical companies use social media to communicate with stakeholder groups during crisis? At this point in time, social media is not a component of the crisis response strategy planning. Overall, the organization was in the early stages of using social media for business-to-business purposes. Realistically, geographic location is a major consideration regarding what response strategy to employ. At highly urban manufacturing sites, emergency responders manage a good portion of the response strategy while at local rural sites, plant management play a larger role in the communication aspect of the response strategy. A major consideration regarding what response strategy would best was the population in which the chemical manufacturing site operated. in the more rural areas, it was sometimes difficult to use a cell telephone and many folks were using landline telephony.

R4: What adopter group describes chemical company diffusion of social media in the crisis event strategy phase? it appears this organization is still at the innovator stage in the adoption process. For the reasons already cited, audience drives diffusion of a technology.

5. Who are the opinion leaders in the diffusion process? There were three opinion leaders identified in this process: urban responders who tend to establish the "best practices" for the rest of the industry. Another opinion leader is competitors who drive adoption of innovations. The last opinion leaders are the Board of Directors and the COO. At this point in time, response efforts involving the use of social media are novel.

It appears that there are several factors that must be considered when adopting social media as a component of crisis response strategy: access to technology by stakeholder groups, the education level of the stakeholder group, availability of cluster technologies at diverse manufacturing sites: internet, satellite, telephony, computer access and ownership. There are significant differences in the aforementioned between rural, suburban and urban communities. Another consideration is income of the demographic group. Access to high-end technology requires disposable income. social media can support traditional emergency notification strategies, such as sirens, but they can't replace them.


At this point in time, social media is used for business-to-business endeavors; not crisis response strategy in the chemical manufacturing industry. social media has the potential to supplement current response practices, but will never replace traditional means due to geographic, education, income and personal preference for information retrieval. The online newsroom is an expectation that would not be met by most journalists if they were to pursue updated information about a crisis.


American Chemistry Council: Available at

Communications Today, Noida: August 2010 available pdqweb?did+2108645911 &sid+1&Fmt+3&clientld+8838&RQT+3-9&Vname=PQD

Kautz, K. & E. Larsen. (2000). Information Technology and People 13(1), P 11-26.

Rogers, E. M. (1983). Diffusion of Innovations, 3rd. Ed., The Free Press, New York: NY.

Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations, 4th. Ed., The Free Press, New York: NY.

Ann D. Jabro, Ph.D.

Department of Communications

Robert Morris university

Dr. Ann Jabro is University Professor of Communication at Robert Morris University.
Table 1: TEKgroup's Elements on an Online Newsroom

Searchable archives      Crisis communication    Social Media Page
PR contacts              Events Calendar         RSS feeds
News releases            Executive biographies   Blog
Badkground information   Financial information   Twitter Feeds
Product information/     News coverage           Audio
  press kits
Photographs              Help/Faq                Video
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Title Annotation:Proceedings of the Second Annual Laurel Highlands Communications Conference
Author:Jabro, Ann D.
Publication:The Proceedings of the Laurel Highlands Communications Conference
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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