The COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-generation crisis with lasting economic and societal consequences. Crises and disasters often bring unpredictable catastrophic changes to the market. Yet, effective management of a crisis can help businesses reduce the event's negative impacts and shorten the recovery time.

As the global economy begins to recover, businesses are making changes to adapt to the post-pandemic world. For example, more companies now let employees work from home permanently.

When people work remotely and classes are taught online, social media plays an even more critical role in crisis communication than before. Research identifying the types of social media messages that get people's attention during the COVID-19 pandemic is timely and helpful in supporting business decisions regarding crisis communication.

The empirical study about crisis communication strategies on social media

I worked with Drs. Jungwoo Lee at Yonsei University in South Korea and Spring Hanat Kyoto University in Japan on a project entitled "Crisis communication on social media: What types of COVID-19 messages get the attention?" We published our work in the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly.

The research framework

We framed our investigation under the Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT). SCCT was introduced to help organizations select the appropriate communication strategies to minimize a crisis' threat to their reputations, depending on the level of responsibilities that the public attributes to the organization. According to SCCT, when an organization holds no responsibilities for the COVID-19 crisis, bolstering posture/strategies will be most pertinent when communicating with its stakeholders, such as:

  • Reminding — To remind its stakeholders about the organization's good work in the past. For example, a hotel chain may share updates about its leadership position in providing exceptional customer service.
  • Ingratiation — To praise its stakeholders' work, contributions, or efforts. For instance, a restaurant may post updates about how its staff works with other community members to cope with a crisis.
  • Victimage — To explain how the organization is also a victim of a crisis. For example, an airline may share news about the pandemic's devastating impacts on the industry or the hardship it experiences during a crisis.

The research questions

Drawing from SCCT and relevant literature, we expected most companies would use Reminding, Ingratiation, and Victimage strategies to communicate with their stakeholders on social media. Additionally, they would heavily utilize photos as the means for content sharing. We focused our research setting in the hospitality industry, aiming to answer four research questions:

  1. Do hospitality companies also use the Reminding, Ingratiation, and Victimage strategies to communicate with their stakeholders about the COVID-19 crisis?
  2. Do hospitality companies share content in photos more frequently than in other forms of media, such as videos, hyperlinks, or pure text?
  3. What are internet users’ reactions toward hospitality companies' COVID-19 messages compared to the non-COVID-19 messages?
  4. What are internet users’ reactions to hospitality companies' social media messages in different media types?

The data and the analysis

We retrieved 657 Facebook and 754 Twitter messages initiated by eight of the world’s largest hotel chains between January 1 and June 19, 2020. These eight hotel chains include Marriott, Hilton, IHG, Wyndham, Choice Hotels, Best Western, Hyatt, and Radisson, a portfolio of over 5.26 million hotel rooms in the global lodging market. After a few preliminary analyses, we trained two graduate students to code all messages into six (6) message types:

  • Prevention — To inform an organization’s stakeholders of the proactive procedures taken or will be taken to cope with a crisis. For example, a hotel may inform travelers that it has adopted enhanced hygiene protocols to ensure every room is thoroughly cleaned.
  • Reminding
  • Ingratiation
  • Victimage
  • Updates — To inform an organization’s stakeholders about its adjustments in operations due to the crisis. For instance, a hotel may update its cancelation policy or extend the expiration date of its loyal customers’ elite status and reward benefits/points.
  • Non-COVID-19 messages — To share other updates that are not relevant to the COVID-19 crisis, such as a promotional offer or showing support to the #BLM movement.

After confirming the intercoder reliability, we used the z scores of reactions/likes, comments, and shares/retweets to measure internet users’ attention to a Facebook/Twitter message. Finally, we performed a series of descriptive analyses as well as ANOVA and post-hoc analyses to answer the four research questions.

The key research findings

  1. The types of COVID-19 messages shared by the hotel chains

    We observed a sharp decline in information sharing by the eight hotel chains after WHO announced the global pandemic in March 2020. Furthermore, it was also not until March 2020 that the eight hotel chains began sharing updates about COVID-19, even though the first coronavirus case was first reported in China back in December 2019, and the virus quickly spread to other countries in before March 2020.

  2. IHG and Hyatt shared the most COVID-19 updates, but Marriott, being the world’s largest hotel chain, only published a total of six COVID-19 messages on Facebook and Twitter. Ingratiation was the most used strategy by the sample, accounted for 48.06% of the 308 COVID-19 messages on both platforms, followed by Updates (30.85%)and Prevention (13.63%). Four hotel chains did not use the Reminding strategy at all. Moreover, only two hotel chains used the Victimage strategy (11 times by IHG on both platforms and once by Best Western on Facebook).

  3. The popular medium used by the hotel chains

    Photos and videos were the dominant media used by the sample. No hotel chains in the sample shared pure-text messages on Facebook. Additionally, many hotel chains shared messages in a combination of two or more media types (e.g., photos + hyperlinks, photos + hyperlinks + videos, among others). Marriott and Best Western were well versed in using images in communications. Hyatt topped the list in terms of video sharing.

  4. The types of COVID-19 messages that get the attention

    Overall, internet users paid more attention to COVID-19 messages than non-COVID-19 messages, giving COVID-19 messages more reactions/likes, comments, and shares/retweets. Among different types of COVID-19 messages, Prevention, Reminding, Ingratiation, and Updates seemed to get more attention.

  5. Visual content gets more reactions/likes, comments, and shares/retweets

It is not surprising to observe that messages attached with videos and/or photos get more attention on Facebook and Twitter than those with hyperlinks or in pure text. The power of visual content cannot be ignored.

The implications

We extended SCCT by introducing the Prevention strategy under the Rebuilding Posture. Unlike other cross-sectional survey studies, this research examined the real-time information exchange among an organization and its stakeholders. Its results provide insightful knowledge for businesses wanting to maintain active communications with their stakeholders on social media. We recommend managers and business owners consider the following managerial implications:

Regarding a message's content

  • Actively use social media to communicate with their stakeholders about a crisis.
  • Keep people informed about what the business is doing to cope with the crisis.
  • Although underused, remind stakeholders from time to time of the outstanding work that the business did in the past.
  • Highlight the good deeds that the stakeholders are doing to cope with the crisis and tag them if allowed (e.g., mentioning a supplier or an associate)
  • Although underused, try the Victimage strategy to see if it could also be effective.
  • Share changes and updates of operations on social media.
  • Use social media as a communication tool instead of a pure marketing outlet because stakeholders want to hear updates about COVID-19 and other concurrent events (e.g., #BLM).

Regarding media usage

  • Create short videos to communicate with the stakeholders.
  • Continue utilizing photos as the visual content.
  • Select an appealing image as a preview of a hyperlink.
  • Attach a video or photo to a message.
  • Avoid long messages; try to use 130 or fewer characters in an update, which will make it look like a "picture" on Facebook.
  • The conclusion

    Our work is not without limitations, but we believe our analysis can benefit many organizations besides those in the lodging industry. We highly encourage businesses to test if the crisis communication strategies presented in our study also work for them and, if so, in what situations. Keep in mind that one tactic might work in a unique setting but not others.

    As we are navigating through the pandemic, what types of social media messages will get people’s attention? Do you have first-hand experience to share with us?

    For example, if you are a content manager, what types of crisis communication strategies work well for your organization? If you are an active user on one or more social media platforms, what types of messages get your attention?