The Medium or the Message: Which Matters More?
Corporations often regard social media as efficient communication tools for mending the reputation of a company and preventing further turmoil in crisis situations. However, does social media ever create negativity towards an organization’s crisis rather than help to fix the crisis. To find out, I read an academic journal this week for my public relations class. I chose the following article:
Schultz. Utz. Göritz. (2011). Is the medium the message? Perceptions of and reactions to crisis communication via Twitter, blogs and traditional media. Public Relations Review, 37(1), 20-27. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2010.12.001
This study asks if there is an effect on an organization’s reputation, secondary crisis communication (e.g. sharing information and leaving a message) and reactions (e.g. willingness to boycott) when combined with different types of media.
The research team designed the experiment to have a three by three design, meaning three types of media (newspaper, blog, Twitter) and three types of reactions (information, apology, sympathy).
Participants were recruited through an online panel. The research team sent out 6,814 requests to panel members asking them to participate in the short survey. The experiment offered no incentive for participation because the survey took fewer than five minutes. In the end, 1,677 out of the 6,814 panel members completed the experiment; a response rate of 28.4 percent.
The average age of the participants was 39 years old. Overall, 87 percent of the participants used the Internet daily, and the other 12 percent used the Internet numerous times throughout the week.
After accepting the invitation, panel members received an email with a link to the online experiment. Participants were provided with a short introduction and then taken to the next page that had a screenshot of a crisis communication scenario. The scenario stated that it was reported that 10 Mercedes Benz drivers who got into a car accident died because of the cars’ spark plug problem.
Participants were then presented with one of the three reactions through one of the three media listed above. With the screenshot still visible, participants were asked to answer questions about secondary communication. On the following page, the experiment asked questions about a company’s reputation, secondary crisis reactions, and demographics.
Participants viewed either a screenshot of the scenario on the online version of the German newspaper Die Süddeutsche, on the Daimler blog, or on a tweet from Mercedes-Benz online to control the experiment’s medium. In each of the three media, the three conditions (apology, sympathy, information) were presented.
Corporate reputation was measured by six factors, such as “Mercedes delivers high-quality products and service.” Three signs were measured for secondary crisis communication: how likely participants were to share the message with other people, to tell their friends about the scenario, and to leave a reaction. Participants recorded answers through a five-point scale ranging from “very unlikely” to “very likely.”
Participants scored higher in the apology condition about “Mercedes taking responsibility for the incident”; however, participants scored higher in the sympathy condition about “Mercedes expressing its sympathy with the aggrieved parties.” This demonstrated that manipulation was a success.
The results indicated that the medium mattered more than the message itself. Although people still discuss newspaper articles more than tweets or blogs, tweets had the most positive effect on reactions and secondary crisis communication. Twitter users also share information through different media channels; therefore, organizations should pay more attention to Twitter, strategically consider their media choice and their target audiences’ media use.
A limitation of this experiment was that it did not include a control condition without any crisis communication. The experiment needs to take into consideration that the organization’s reaction might already be viewed as positive because it indicates that the organization values and cares about its stakeholders.