Feature: Building Relationships on Trust in Disasters

Trust in Evacuation Warnings

The role of trust is important in disaster management and social media. Joint research over the past twelve months between The University of Padua (Italy), Trinity College Dublin and Stillwater Communications (Ireland) has uncovered some important details about trust and its role in disaster communications.

When people are asked to evacuate from an area they are put in a position where they have to trust the authority of emergency managers who tell them that it is safer to leave their homes than to stay. While this might seem like an easy decision, the events of Hurricane Katrina highlighted a major issue when many people mistrusted the warnings that were given and chose to stay in their homes where they felt safer. This was, in part, due to exaggerated stories of looting and mistrust in government, where people felt it would be safer to stay in a familiar place than to relocate temporarily.

Trust in Who Delivers the Message

Graph of levels of trust from Ipsos Mori

Ipsos Mori’s survey on trust shows a low level of political trust compared to an increasing level of trust in experts. Click image for source

One recent poll (above) by Ipsos Mori (a UK research company that specialise in media and advertising) highlights the low level of trust in politicians and journalists when compared to experts. In evacuation situations, politicians often deliver messages from emergency managers, including warning messages and evacuation orders.

Research on Slándáil includes an analysis of non-verbal and spoken communication. Recent research by partners at the University of Padua focussed on a speech given by politician Gov. Chris Christie prior to landfall of Hurricane Sandy in 2014 in New Jersey. Observations showed that in both his spoken use of language (calling his electorate “stupid”, for example) and in his non-verbal communication (casual, non-authoritative) Gov. Christie did not inspire trust through this speech (see segment of speech below). A digital analysis of the facial expressions also showed that the speaker showed negative emotion while communicating through much of this speech (analysis carried out using software Emotient).

Building Trust Relationships

One of the key issues that has been discovered for emergency managers is that trust cannot be obtained during a crisis. Trust is developed through a progressive relationship that is built over time. Communications company Stillwater, a partner on Slándáil based in Dublin, work with public bodies in developing these types of relationships through deliberate and empathetic delivery of messages. Past research on trust-building has shown that trust is built before an event occurs in all areas, including economics, emergencies or political relationships.

It is generally agreed that trust relationships are developed through strong communication that leads to a gradual reduction in tension between two parties. Societal research by Trinity College Dublin has shown that this gradual reduction creates a trust relationship, which, once established, can allow for a more fruitful discussion between participants such as emergency managers and a public at risk from a disaster.

In this area, social media can be a valuable asset. Unlike much traditional media such as television or radio, social media allows for the direct communication between an office of an emergency manager and the general public. This allows people to become direct participants in the conversation, opening a dialogue of communication. Although this is not without its risks (such as opening the emergency managers up to public criticism), it has been proven effective in the past.

Social Media and Trust-building

FEMA (The Federal Emergency Managment Agency) in the USA use social media to communicate directly with the public. They offer an open and engaged level of communication. They give advice on how to prepare for emergencies, but also allow citizens to contribute advice, and as a result they have established a strong relationship with the public. Once a natural disaster occurs, they are then more likely to be seen as a trustworthy source of information.

Screencapture of a tweet from An Garda Síochána to a member of the Irish public

A tweet from An Garda Síochána relating to a local festival, showing a conversational tone and direct communication, essential in trust-building

Slándáil partners that work in emergency management have also established trust relationships using social media. An Garda Síochána (The police force of Ireland) use their Twitter account to inform people where they have set up speed cameras and to provide information and safety messages. They encourage active participation from the public, asking for information on conditions in different areas as well as voluntary help. Similarly, PSNI (The Police Service of Northern Ireland) have a system of regional Facebook accounts that they use to deliver local messages, targeting specific areas so that they can build more integrated relationships with communities.

Ongoing Research

The Slándáil Project are working toward a greater understanding of trust in evacuation warnings. Recently, Maria Grazia Busa from the University of Padua, Italy, presented some of the initial findings including the importance of communication strategies and methods in trust-building. This research will continue throughout the project, with a focus on two areas of trust:

  1. trust in evacuation warnings, and how emergency managers can improve trust relationships with the public and
  2. trust in public social media messages, and how to build a technical system that will improve credibility of social media messages from the public

The research documented above appears in the publicly available published workshop paper Trust-building Through Social Media Communications in Disaster Management, published as part of the SWDM’15 workshop co-located with the WWW Conference, Florence, Italy, 18-05-2015.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *