By Sweta Baniya
Purpose: This article explores the role of technical communicators during disaster response and provides suggestions to practitioners about how to incorporate social justice-oriented language, culture, and context-specific crisis communication during disasters.
Method: This is a mixed-methods study that includes a) narrative inquiry and b) social network analysis. The study is based on two different disasters: the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake and Hurricane Maria of 2017. I used narrative inquiry with 28 participants who represented government, non-governmental agencies, community organizers, activists, and students for the qualitative study portion of my research. For the social network analysis portion, I analyzed approximately 50 million tweets that were posted during the first week after both disasters. In this article, I showcased a word frequency display that focuses on the words uttered and written in response to the calamities.
Results: Based on this method, I found that there were two different types of communication that happened during these two disasters: organizational communication and crisis publics communication, which was mediated by people from all walks of life.
Conclusion: Technical communicators and publics (local or non-experts) who take up the role of technical communicators during a disaster can play an important role in providing accurate information and dispelling misinformation by working closely with the experts, scientists, journalists, and other officials.
KEYWORDS: Crisis communication, crisis publics, disaster response, social media, narrative inquiry, social justice
- This project provides three takeaways on technical communicators’ roles during disaster response:
- Context and culture-specific crisis communication
- Crisis communication for social justice
- Representing community voices in crisis communication
HOW CAN TECHNICAL COMMUNICATORS HELP IN DISASTER RESPONSE?
Earthquakes and hurricanes, as disasters, create ecological disturbances by shifting geographies, displacing lives, and destroying infrastructure. The precarious conditions after disasters require that accessible and accurate information is shared through printed or digital mediums. Additionally, since disasters are location- and context-specific, responding to them requires enculturation on the part of first responders, who include government employees, non-governmental organizations (NGO), informal networks of volunteers and activists, and community members. When responding to a disaster, mediating communication among all the stakeholders, including the public, is a challenging task. Disaster response in an increasingly globalized world will require more advanced, effective, and accessible ways to communicate that incorporates inter or multicultural communications strategies. Technical and professional communicators can help during times of disaster by “making information more useable and accessible to those who need that information” (Society for Technical Communication, n.d.). In doing so, technical and professional communicators might help save lives jeopardized by disasters.
During two recent catastrophic disasters, the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake and the 2017 Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, people engaged globally at different levels by networking, participating, and responding to the disaster and by making information accessible to support vulnerable communities (Baniya, 2022). Disaster responses within current digital contexts create a variety of local cultural- and context-specific rhetorical situations that are dynamic and require easier, faster, and effective ways of communication that are accessible to the vulnerable communities. Historically, technical communication has been useful in the context of human-made crises such as war; technical communication was used, for example, to explain how weapons operate to American soldiers during World War II (Connors, 1982). Since then, technical and professional communication (TPC) has drastically changed and engages more people globally than ever. As Kimball (2016) argued, we are truly living in a golden age for TPC in the sense that more people than ever are engaging in sharing know-how as part of their everyday lives. During a disaster, such engagement happens spontaneously as people are motivated affectively and share their experiences widely online, thus creating global connections on various platforms (Baniya, 2021; Papacharissi, 2015; Potts, 2014). With a focus on the role of TPC practices of people (experts and non-experts) during these two disasters, I specifically focused on the crisis communication practices in my analysis to showcase how technical communicators who emerge to fulfill the communication needs of others during a disaster can help in disaster response. Though the article focusses on two natural disasters, I hope that the strategies presented in this article will be useful in responding to other forms of disasters, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
The April 2015 Nepal Earthquake and the 2017 Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico took lives, destroyed infrastructures, and created a humanitarian crisis. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake and an aftershock of 7.3 magnitude in Nepal killed 8,979 people and injured 26,000 (Nepal Disaster Risk Reduction Portal). Likewise, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico killed 2,975 (Milken Institute School of Public Health, 2016). However, another report estimates the death toll exceeding 4,645 (Kishore et al., 2018). These crises also brought the world together to network, participate, act, and help in the emergence of transnational networked communities in Nepal and Puerto Rico (Baniya, 2021). These communities, both online and offline, worked together to build their knowledge about each disaster by developing unique composing and communication practices to disseminate information; drawing the attention of stakeholders like government, private, and humanitarian organizations; and performing relief and rescue operations. However, the formation of networked communities during times of disaster is not a new phenomenon, and scholars have studied these kinds of networks since the early nineteenth century (Aldrich, 2012). Contextually, these two disasters happened during the digital age in which networks were already in existence and where online interactions inevitably aid in the formation of social ties, networks, and assemblages (DeLanda, 2016; Potts, 2014). Disasters in the digital age can be less detrimental if online and networked publics are mobilized (Papacharissi, 2015). In these situations, the local publics are vulnerable, but they are also active participants who can mobilize their online presence through assorted technologies, including their mobile phones and social media. Thus, by listening to the needs of the community who actively work and perform their own form of crisis communication in multiple languages, technical communicators can make an impactful contribution in saving lives by adhering to the social justice policies and communication practices of the local community during a disaster.
In the following sections of this article, I first define crisis communication and crisis publics for social justice. I then provide a literature review, followed by methods, results, and a discussion of strategies that technical communicators can use during a disaster.
Defining Crisis Communication and Crisis Publics for Social Justice
Effective and accurate communication during a crisis, such as an earthquake or hurricane, is an essential lifesaving tool as the impact of catastrophic disasters are ultimately unpredictable. Walaski (2011) suggested that crisis, as a concept, includes the idea that the threat posed by the event is as serious, and often equally as catastrophic, as the event itself. Potts (2014) argued that “we need to possess tools with which we can locate the many technologies, people, groups, and websites through which people are sharing information” (p. 16). These tools help us facilitate effective communication, however, sometimes such tools can also spread misinformation (Baniya & Potts, 2021). Walaski (2011) defined crisis communication as “those messages that are given to audiences during an emergency event that threatens them either immediately or at some foreseeable point in the near future” (p. 9). Hence, information during a disaster is the message that helps people navigate their lives during or after a crisis such as factual and validated data, knowledge of what to do next such as finding information about food, medicine, lost family members, safety, or volunteering opportunities (Potts, 2014). Crisis communication during a disaster can also be used as a resistance strategy to uncover hidden injustices and openly reject them to provide ease to the suffering community and to provide cultural, language, and context-specific communication (Walton et al., 2019).
Furthermore, during the crisis, many communities emerge in the form of transnational assemblages, which are “collectives of people, organizations, or entities, who are connected transnationally via online and offline mediums and who gather to respond to a certain situation of natural or political crisis by challenging the dominant narratives and practices” (Baniya, 2022). Within these transnational assemblages, different forms of crisis communication, which tend to be haphazard, multidimensional, and multilingual, happen and can include personal storytelling, information and data sharing, public service announcements, conversations, and hashtags. Hence, for this project, I define crisis communication in the context of disaster as communication performed by sharing information, messages, pictures, and data within the varied context and in multiple languages that incorporates culture and context. Crisis communication during a disaster is transmitted through traditional means and newer mediums of communication, including mobile phones and social media via organizations or via transnational assemblages by using multiple languages. This form of communication is performed transnationally by people representing transcultural communities who have roots in the communities suffering through a crisis by taking various multimodal forms and performed both formally and informally. Various organizations, disaster responders, volunteers, and local community organizers employ crisis communication. This definition goes beyond the traditional definition of crisis communication, which is targeted towards repairing an organization’s image, and does not account for transnational contexts (Coombs, 2007). Jones et al. (2016) argued that international and intercultural professional communication should focus on understanding cultures, use diverse levels of analysis, and transcend national contexts to investigate global phenomena and transcultural communities. Bringing this concept of transcultural global communities, i.e., respect of cultures and multiple languages, to this project, I combine crisis communication with social justice, defining these combined acts as conducting communication during a crisis by highlighting the experiences of marginalized communities and vulnerable populations, their language, and cultural contexts.
During a crisis, there is an emergence of actors who help facilitate communication and provide “assessments of communication effectiveness” (Coombs & Holladay, 2014). Crisis communication scholars like Coombs and Holladay (2014) regarded these actors as the crisis publics. By actors, I refer to people who emerge during the crisis to facilitate crisis communication in their respective communities during the disaster. I extend this definition by arguing that crisis publics emerge during the emergency to facilitate crisis communication in their respective communities to challenge the privileged narratives and to address social injustices created by unequal distribution of aid or information. During a disaster, crisis publics who emerge on both social media and in offline spaces within communities can change the ways communication is facilitated. The crisis publics help in identifying the gaps in communication by the official disaster response systems like governments, humanitarian organizations, and stand up for the community. The role of crisis publics is important in conducting crisis communication for social justice as they help in voicing the experiences of the marginalized community during a disaster by forming coalitions, helping in decentralizing aid, and by challenging the official disaster response mechanisms (Baniya, 2021; Soto Vega, 2019). These publics interact with people who are suffering, who may not have access to various digital forms, and who are in dire need of immediate response materials such as food and health services, hence, becoming the voice for them. Frandsen and Johansen (2010) posited that crisis publics who are traditionally the receivers of the communication can become crisis communicators within the rhetorical arena where various voices that are not represented by any organizations can be heard. The crisis publics become the co-creators of the communication and establish social conventions within them to navigate the crisis (Potts, 2014). Thus, crisis publics for social justice are active responders, interpreters, and transmitters of information; they are involved in decentralizing the communication process during a crisis and often move beyond national and geographical boundaries.
In the context of this article, the crisis publics are the ones who have suffered through and survived the disaster or have experienced the trauma from afar (like diasporic communities) and become the voice of marginalized people and those who are silenced by the state or have been ignored. Some of these publics have access to digital platforms, have the privilege of the internet, have writing as well as communicating abilities in one or multiple languages, and have self-motivation to support communities needing their help. Additionally, among the crisis publics are some who might not have access to the digital media or chose not to use digital media or aren’t tech-savvy but play an important role in gathering and disseminating information. The crisis publics also represent transnational assemblages of people who use their privilege of access, time, multiple languages, and abilities to challenge privileged spaces, organizations, and dominant voices and create space in digital media or offline spaces for people needing support during a disaster. These publics use their means of access to create a coalition, challenging the big organizational disaster responders and the privileged discourses in social media (Baniya, 2021).
Scholars studying risk and disasters in TPC have highlighted the importance of networks, rhetoric, and newer technologies during and after disasters (Potts, 2014; Sauer, 2003). TPC scholars study the role of social media, transnational response, and intercultural communication in disaster situations (Ding, 2014; Frost, 2013; Potts, 2014; Richards, 2017). Many studies have focused on how digital media creates spaces for assemblages and networks to be created and mobilized during the disaster (Murthy & Gross, 2017; Potts, 2009). However, a gap exists in the comparative studies of different disasters in the transnational context, which highlights the integration of networks, technologies, and rhetorical practices of global networks in response to disasters. TPC scholar Beverly A. Sauer (2003) showcased the complexities related to documentation practices during large-scale disasters and explored the ways that technical communicators can help institutions in overcoming the challenges of writing about, discoursing about, and negotiating the consequences of a disaster. Other TPC scholars have focused on risk communication to understand risk. Establishing foundations of risk communication, Grabill and Simmons (1998) argued that a) technical communicators can play a significant role with research and writing skills on communicating risk and b) conceptualizing risk from a socially constructed point of view helps in locating knowledge-making and power within the communication process.
Scholars have broadened the scope of research by exploring many theories and examining the formation of networks and social media during disasters and emergencies. Potts (2014) studied various disasters: the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 London Bombings, and the 2008 Mumbai Attacks. In examining these disasters, Potts demonstrated that the social web is a contextual, flexible, and responsive space where researchers and practitioners can focus on participants and their experiences, which can lead to research and development processes in building stronger insights for participant-centered experiences (Potts, 2014). Some TPC scholars have focused on examining various transnational risk communications, where digital spaces provide voices and empower locals during a disaster. Frost (2013) analyzed technical documents related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, which resulted in the deaths of 11 men. Frost (2013) argued that various international and national entities used local spaces to share information about this disaster while regional and local communicators shared multiple versions of information on globalized digital sites. Other TPC scholars have explored the epidemics and global public health crises and the requirement of transcultural communications in addressing those crises. Ding (2014) examined the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic and highlighted the importance of transcultural communication in response to a global outbreak. Ding (2014) contributed to building a theory of transcultural risk analysis that “serves as a useful tool for global risk analysis because of its attention to transcultural forces, global flows, power dynamics, knowledge production and negotiations and impacts of local contexts on risk communication practices” (p. 240).
TPC scholars have also studied risk communication associated with issues of climate change (Blythe et al., 2008; Walsh & Walker, 2016). Other scholars have focused on effective and interactive communication technologies such as data visualization, arguing that technology will help to address the public need for localized information for decision-making by facilitating information access during a disaster (Richards, 2017, 2018). Stephens and DeLorme (2019) explored ways to highlight user agency and design interactive tools for visualizing environmental risks suggesting “a user-centered approach which foregrounds agency can help risk communication researchers and practitioners identify and address power relations among users, designers, and developers” (p. 392). Reamer (2015) examined the risk communications strategies of large governmental commissions during the 2011 Japan Earthquake. Reamer (2015) studied the rhetoric and risk communication strategies employed by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by analyzing reports issued by the two commissions. Meanwhile, Bowdon (2014) offered a pedagogical study that examined how a digital platform like Twitter can be used to teach emergency messaging in TPC by teaching scholars to use social media in the TPC classroom.
Research reviewed in this section highlights the importance of the interaction between academic and non-academic workplaces. Scholars such as Ding (2014), Frost (2013), and Potts (2014) have accentuated how industry can benefit from academic research regarding risk communication and argued that academic researchers and non-academic practitioners should work together during times of crisis. Extending the previous scholarship, in this article, I focus on discussing, as well as underscoring, the role of technical communicators during disaster response in the networked digital age.
The data I draw from in this article comes from a mixed-methods study that I conducted for my dissertation project, which included narrative inquiry (IRB #1811021345) and social network analysis of Twitter data. These methods helped me to answer the following research questions:
- What are the official and unofficial ways that crisis communication within various mediums helped establish knowledge and information during two disasters?
- In what ways did technical communicators support and develop crisis communication practices that can contribute to social justice when implementing transnational disaster response?
The mixed-methods approach allowed me to gather two different data sets that help in highlighting the communication experiences of people during the disaster in the form of a narrative and provide analysis of networks. This approach also allowed me to get a deeper understanding of how language, culture, and context influences how people communicate during a disaster. Hence, narrative inquiry became a way for me to listen to people and their stories of navigating the crisis and supporting their communities. For participants and I, narrative inquiry created a contact zone where we could share our stories, culture, and difficulties that we faced due to the disasters (Jones, 2017). Likewise, the larger set of Twitter data gave me quantifiable data of how people from all over the world on social media responded to the crisis. Understanding the context of how those who used social media and crisis communication were influenced by their culture created a foundation for me to better understand social media interactions on Twitter.
For the social network analysis, I gathered Twitter data from around the world during these two catastrophes. I purchased the data from ginp.com,
and the tweets spanned the first weeks after the Nepal Earthquake and Hurricane Maria. Williams (2018) argued that Twitter is an effective space that helps us better understand the rhetorical contexts of conversations. Therefore, gathering Twitter data was important for this project as most of the activists or crisis publics who evolved during the two disasters have used Twitter or other social media to launch their disaster campaigns. The analysis for the data was conducted via Python with criteria for social network analysis, word frequency counting, and frequency of the tweets. However, the data I report in this paper only includes word frequency data. I do, however, heavily rely on the results I obtained from the interviews.
I interviewed 28 participants (14 from Nepal and 14 from Puerto Rico) for the narrative inquiry portion of my study by finding participants’ information via publicly available online mediums. I also used the snowball sampling approach, which led me to interview people whom I had not found online. The participants interviewed had a) suffered through these disasters by physically being in Nepal or Puerto Rico or psychologically outside these locations and b) played a role in disaster response in Nepal or Puerto Rico. The participants for both Nepal and Puerto Rico included community organizers, others who were employed by the government, students, non-Nepali nationals working in Nepal (in case of Nepal), volunteers, members of the Nepali and Puerto Rican diaspora, and media representatives.
The interviews were conducted in Nepal and Puerto Rico and four interviews were conducted via Skype. Each interview lasted from 45-90 minutes and were conducted in Nepali, English, and Spanish (which was translated during the interview). I analyzed the interviews by using NVivo Qualitative Data Analysis software with a grounded theory approach as articulated by Saldana (2013) that helped me formulate various codes and later aided in formulating various categories. Additionally, I used the definition of crisis communication for social justice, which combined acts as conducting communications during a crisis by highlighting the experiences of marginalized communities and vulnerable populations. My multiple levels of coding included: the first formulation of codes from interviews from each location separately, the second level of coding that combined the codes, the third level compared the codes from interviews from each location, and finally formulated the categories. This resulted in two major categories that I define as:
- Organizational communications: official communications performed by established organizations such as the government, humanitarian organizations, NGOs, and media houses.
- Crisis publics communication: communications performed by the public who responded to the disaster either through offline mediums, social media platforms, or through newly developed applications that democratize communication.
The project is grounded in avoiding dominant cultures, practices, and contexts in the case of disaster response. In doing so, I highlight voices of people who emerged as disaster responders (or crisis publics) to become the voice of their community. All of the participants had access to a phone, computer, internet as well as language and educational abilities that helped them advocate on behalf of their communities. In doing so, they represented counter-narratives of the public, their needs, and their suffering, which were often ignored by the governmental and the bigger humanitarian actors. Hence, the people I have interviewed had the privilege and knowledge of using social media platforms, however, to the best of their knowledge they used these platforms to raise the voices of those who were left behind including those who could not or did not use social media. In this way, the project is limited because participants who were interviewed had an active role in disaster response through digital or non-digital means.
In the following sections, I present the results from the narrative inquiry and the social network analysis. I then discuss these results and describe their implications.
The nature and context of each crisis are different and, as Horsley and Barker (2002) pointed out, “no single crisis communication plan is going to solve every problem” (p. 408). Catastrophic natural disasters present a variety of infrastructural- and communication-based challenges that cause established crisis communication mechanisms to fail. As my data suggests, crisis communication during the two disasters was performed via traditional mediums of communication such as radio, television, newspapers, and non-traditional social media such as Twitter and Facebook. All 28 participants collectively expressed that a) they participated in conducting crisis communication, b) they used various social media platforms when communicating, and c) social media was an effective and active medium of communication. Participants articulated that they established communication networks by curating and sharing information about rescue, relief, food, health, and volunteering efforts. In doing so, the participants expressed that they presented alternative or counter-narratives of people by speaking out against one-sided official narratives. They used digital platforms to create space for those who are ignored by the mainstream disaster responders such as government or other humanitarian agencies. The participants also challenged and questioned the authorities with their tweets, messages, and the disaster relief campaigns that they organized. From the Twitter data, the range of words that were used in communicating during the two disasters are displayed in Figures 1 and 2. As shown by the charts, the words “earthquake” and “hurricane” had the highest frequency, followed by “relief,” “news,” “food,” and “volunteer.”
Participants from Nepal stated that they used different social media platforms, either officially or unofficially, to perform crisis communication during the earthquake. The Home Ministry of Nepal was the major official organization for collecting and disseminating data through various channels. A participant representing the media explained that she had not reported on any previous crisis, and she found writing and communicating during a disaster very difficult. Her blog post (in English) where she described her experience during the calamity, tweeting pictures and telling stories was shared widely, which made her a focal point of contact for numerous international journalists. Participants who were organizing their relief and rescue actions shared that they would use social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to communicate the relief work, and they were organizing, expressing their needs, and sharing accountability for their works online. Participants also said that they used Google Docs to gather communicated information from volunteers and later post that information to Twitter, Facebook groups, and group chats. That information would eventually be used to visualize data, conduct surveys, and translate government-provided information.
In Puerto Rico, all of the participants also mentioned using diverse social media and journalism or organizational platforms for performing crisis communication during Hurricane Maria. All the participants articulated the need for and importance of communications during a time of crisis. Some of the devastating consequences of Hurricane Maria were a lack of electricity and communications. In this case, participants shared that they improvised communications by writing letters, by communicating in person, and by sending messages from their mobile devices and waiting for them to be delivered. Likewise, Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria charged their phones when possible in their car and used local hotspots provided via places like Burger King (as shared by one participant). A representative of a community-based organization shared that they used an alternative energy resource powered through a solar power system to jumpstart their electricity, Internet, and community-based radio. According to participants, those affected by Hurricane Maria in Puerto would queue up to either call their loved ones to inform them of their safety or to assure themselves that their loved ones were safe. Sometimes Puerto Ricans would also announce their safety over the community radio hoping that the news would reach their loved ones. Platforms like Facebook were used by Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and around the globe to share information about the needs of the community, organize fundraising through platforms like GoFundMe, and call for volunteers. According to the participants, these platforms became a reliable source of information related to relief, volunteering, and donations. While there were hindrances created by lack of electricity, the participants I interviewed found a way to communicate or created a way for others to communicate, share, and create communities.
In both disasters, there were two different levels of crisis communication: the official crisis communication (the organizational crisis) and the unofficial crisis communication (the crisis publics’ communication) mediated via local actors through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, WhatsApp, and Google Docs. Hence, the crisis communication practices during the Nepal Earthquake and Hurricane Maria were not solely controlled by organizations that were responding to the disaster but also by those who suffered through the disaster and who used their communication and digital platforms as a voice for marginalized people. I provide a brief overview of what organizational crisis communication and crisis publics communication looked like in the following sections.
Organizational crisis communication
Participants who represented the organizations shared that, during the crises, they communicated by following organizational protocols and by networking with other organizations. The participants said that during and after the disasters, crisis communication was conducted by coordinating with the government, media, and by sharing that information via social media. In the case of both Nepal and Puerto Rico, radio was the most effective and one of the primary sources of information. In the case of Nepal, Radio Nepal, the national radio broadcaster, provided information about the earthquake, brought in various expert speakers to refute rumors, and reported governmental and other relief-based activities in Nepali, English, and multiple other local languages. Radio communications, therefore, dominated the transmission of information in Nepal because residents could not remain home due to the continuous threat of aftershocks. In the case of Puerto Rico, WAPA Radio, a small family-owned radio station, was the only radio that was functioning throughout the island with the support of electric generators powered by diesel, and the station became the major source of information during and after Hurricane Maria. One participant from Puerto Rico recounted:
And, I said on air, “All the reporters, I know there’s not going to be any newspapers or any television or radio stations working. So, if you have nothing to do, please come. We need your help. This is the only network that is operating, and we need to help them. They don’t have any employees, and this is the only way . . . We have to do our community service.” So, about 70 reporters and former reporters showed up.
With this announcement, WAPA radio became a communication and relief hub for Hurricane Maria. Reporters, politicians, volunteers, and relief providers constantly came in and out of the radio station. Through the radio, the participant was able to project the voices of those who were suffering and help them reach out to the respective disaster responders.
In Nepal’s case, numerous humanitarian organizations, like the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU), assisted the government in their disaster response and crisis communication efforts. These organizations coordinated with the government, media, and other community-based organizations to gather information and share it on their websites and their social media outlets. However, the UN, which was the leader of the disaster response efforts, was criticized for its “situational reports” (mostly in English language), which reported what was going on, was not adequately targeted to the public with lack of English language as articulated by two different participants. While the situational reports were only one of the communications mechanisms, the UN was also criticized for not representing community voices. A participant who was leading an international organization focusing on media that specifically worked to create crisis communication products during the earthquake mentioned:
There was always a daily number of coordination meetings, and I went there. At this point, there’s nobody there except the UN and a couple of big organizations. So, I felt that, okay, there was a lot of space for me to inject the communication components. The UN would be thinking, and, you know, there’s this situation reports of how to bring those together. But I was like, okay, I’m not talking about putting a situation report. I am talking about talking to the community. So how are we going to do that quickly, and how can we ensure that it’s a quick and meaningful process?
The participant later added that she mobilized her team to reach out to the community to gather data and stories from the people allowing them to speak for themselves. That same participant’s organization also ran a television-based program that had 6.6 million subscribers on Facebook. Using this fan base, the organization conducted a need-based survey online. Then, they distributed the survey data to other organizations like the UN so that they could more accurately provide aid. Humanitarian organizations’ major focus was to collect and provide reports, photographs, and videos that documented the catastrophe’s aftermath. This evidence was shared through the organizations’ websites, media, and official social media outlets to draw the public’s attention to what communities needed. Contrarily, international organizations, according to several participants, were sharing information to showcase the work they had already completed rather than sharing information on what to do next. Several participants also criticized the curation of information by these organizations because the organizations would only share information that bolstered their image as opposed to information that would help provide aid to Nepali communities.
In the case of Hurricane Maria, smaller community-based organizations, churches, and private organizations were more active compared to larger international humanitarian organizations. The role of the community-based organizations was greater in that they knew the needs and requirements of the community they were working on behalf of and understood their audiences well. As in Nepal, larger humanitarian organizations were criticized for manipulating information. Because information was very crucial during the disaster, participants articulated that they relied on reports shared by friends and family on Facebook. One participant who worked at a community-based organization in Puerto Rico helped in creating mobile-based application shared that:
The one thing that I’ve found is that information is power, and people don’t want to give up their power. Bigger humanitarian relief organizations feel threatened by open platforms like ours . . . They have private platforms, and they have access and power. After all, they have the numbers, and they’ll get money because they have this information that nobody else has. What we’re doing is we’re democratizing, or whatever the word is, the information so the government cannot manipulate the data. It’s completely transparent.
This was a unique crisis communication mechanism where information was collected via an app developed by community organizers who challenged the national narrative shared by the government and other large humanitarian organizations. This mobile-based application gained popularity as it helped in communicating the needs of the community, volunteers, and donors. The participant curated the information on their website, making it accessible to the public. Another representative of a community-based organization shared that, to collect data and information about the community, they had to conduct interviews with the community members by talking to them one-on-one. The participant had to choose an empathetic way of assessment as the survivors often refused to share their difficulties because they hid their emotions and feelings due to the psychological trauma of the hurricane.
Organizations involved in disaster response efforts during these two disasters needed to be innovative because they were providing information to users who were not only passive listeners but were also active responders. These organizations depended on the retweets, responses, shares, and the likes of users to whom they were communicating the information. Hence, organizations needed to work collaboratively with the people who were receiving their information.
The crisis publics’ communication
The crisis publics who used crisis communication during the calamities articulated that they used several social media platforms to engage with the authorities and community members in distributing messages. The messages were shared by using social media functions like retweeting or liking on Twitter and sharing or liking on Facebook and often through informal disaster response launched by the public. The participants from Nepal and Puerto Rico stated that they were able to support communities who needed support and whose voices needed to be represented by resisting against the government, by using digital medium, and communicating through those applications. The participants who did not represent any organizations and worked individually during disasters shared that they used social media to communicate. Social media can provide an alternative space for people to perform crisis communication without pre-existing organizational protocols and language requirements (Potts, 2014). Using digital spaces, the participants were able to voice their concerns regarding the official narratives, and to share, curate, and validate information during the crises often with hashtags, photographs, and posts. Responding to the two disasters, the participants asserted that they became the focal point within their networks to share updates regarding the disaster, relief and rescue activities, and community needs. In both Nepal and Puerto Rico, the actors were involved in writing, collecting data, conducting an assessment, and sharing information on their social media accounts. The non-expert crisis publics took the role of technical communicators during the disaster to meet the informational needs of the people, coordinate rescue and relief operations, and make information about the disaster accessible.
The participants from Nepal revealed that they used Twitter to share information, their blogs or Facebook groups to curate information, Google Docs to organize relief, and numerous data visualization software to summarize key information. As articulated by the participants, even though the government was trying to disseminate information, their efforts were insufficient. To avoid rumors, to organize relief and rescue activities, and to reach out to the communities who have been ignored by larger organizations, the participants conducted their crisis communications often in both Nepali and English languages. In conducting such crisis communication, participants organized data collection by mobilizing volunteers on the ground, translating data, and by curating information on multimodal websites. Participants found that, since the Nepali government had limited human resources to handle the catastrophic disaster and communication mechanisms, it was slower and required a lot of volunteers to enhance such communication. Therefore, Nepali activists relied on social media and the grapevine informational network to access information from the community. One participant from Nepal said:
I was answering these questions every hour, staying up, and feeling like a crazy thing. I was trying to figure out information, trying to share information, trying to locate people and help people feel better, and in some cases trying to share the unfortunate news.
During the earthquake, the participant created his relief work and was not affiliated with any organization, but he served as a communication point for many other people in his network. Even though there were official mechanisms to find people, those outside of Nepal needed the information about their loved ones immediately. The participant shared that Nepal is a close-knit society, and information travels from family, friends, and friends of friends, so it was easier to locate information about people directly from the people. Another participant mentioned that she was involved in translating governmental information from Nepali to English to make information accessible to non-Nepali speakers who were trying to locate information about their loved ones. Another participant gathered several different information sites that were sharing misinformation and curated those in his blog where he corrected the misinformation so that people could get verified information. The way actors in Nepal conducted crisis communication was by mobilizing their resources to get accurate and valid information about the ignored and marginalized communities. They also curated such information on social media to conduct relief and rescue activities as well as to hold the government and other organizations accountable for their efforts.
During Hurricane Maria, social media became a space for crisis communication where activists did not wait for the government or the U.S. to respond to the disaster but instead worked to control their narratives. Participants explained that they curated the information on their respective Facebook accounts and websites, sharing information, data both in English and Spanish with their community to help it. An activist participant from Puerto Rico expressed:
We collect the data, we make it public, and then we make outreach to organizations that have resources
. . . We were kind of like connectors . . . I saw myself as a disaster relief concierge. You have a need. I connect you with the resources. Or you have a resource, I connect you with the need . . . we also had a very strong component in our platform of volunteerism. We would send volunteers to those communities that we surveyed to help them rebuild or to help them do whatever it is that they needed help with. We ended up registering over 500 humanitarian brigades of random volunteers.
As the participant noted, Puerto Ricans demanded transparency in information, and local community-based organizations were the ones who were strongly advocating for such information by making the data public and by partnering with other organizations to organize relief. Local community-based organizations and activists served as a communication channel between local organizers and Puerto Ricans in the diaspora. Organizers used the Internet and material spaces to collect donations while serving as a hub for community building and ensuring the people’s survival (Soto Vega, 2019).
The crisis publics were one of the major actors who were engaged in seeking, interpreting, and distributing messages (Coombs & Holladay, 2014; Frandsen & Johansen, 2010; Walaski, 2011). In Nepal’s case, Subba (2015) declared social media engagement not only helped to provide service but also helped Nepal Police to be more accountable and transparent. Hence, these crisis publics engage in communications during a disaster, becoming prime stakeholders of crisis communication and making the authorities accountable. The crisis publics of both crises attracted the attention of people around the globe and brought them together, thus forming transnational assemblages. These crisis publics play the role of an active audience who can talk back and highlight any discrepancies during a disaster while sharing their voices on social media platforms. This act of speaking out on social media and resistance displays the autonomous characteristics of a transnational assemblage (Delanda, 2016).
Discussion and Implications: How Can Technical Communicators Support Disaster Response
As my results demonstrated, communication during a crisis can be enhanced through digital technology and social media because it allows for quicker delivery of information to a larger public. With access to various technological tools, as Potts (2014) argued, technology experts and scientists can work collaboratively with social scientists, including technical communicators, to respond more effectively to crises. In the crises created by the two disasters discussed, communication was mediated by official and unofficial organizations through self-organized crisis publics or transnational assemblages. The formation of the transnational assemblages in the digital web facilitated communication by building “a series of locality-based activities and organizations around a key function in the network” (Castells, 2010). These transnational assemblages, constituting the crisis publics, helped in spreading urgent messages that informed audiences, making audiences aware of the situation, and encouraging precautionary measures. Sun (2012) argued that local users put various technologies into their context to use it from their socio-cultural perspective, which Sun called user localization. Such user localization in Nepal and Puerto Rico during the two disasters was demonstrated in the use of technology and communication conducted via multiple languages and methods in responding to the crisis.
Crisis communication conducted by crisis publics can facilitate disaster response because it conveys messages and shares information through multiple channels of communication such as mobile phones, SMS, emails, tweets, and Facebook and WhatsApp messages. These messages included information about the need for relief materials, calls for volunteers, and requests for funding. During both disasters, these messages were communicated through local languages, targeted to meet language and culturally specific communication needs, and performed by the crisis publics to provide a public voice for communities who were ignored. Such communications were flexible, adaptive, and did not have any official protocols. While repurposing such messages with social media functions like sharing, retweeting, liking, or replying, and sometimes rewriting, the crisis communication practices during these two crises blurred the boundaries between the official and unofficial networks. Crisis communication is mostly employed in an organizational context (Walaski, 2011); however, my data suggests, because the context of the world is continuously morphing during a crisis, crisis communication is also always transforming. In this context, catastrophic disasters invite multiple stakeholders like government, organizations, and several evolving transnational assemblages to communicate about the crisis and aid in disaster response efforts. To manage a successful disaster response, stronger crisis communication mechanisms that involve and highlight the role of the community and the people who are affected by disaster response efforts are required (Coombs & Holladay, 2014; Horsley & Barker, 2002).
In the case of both disasters, social media became an important platform where crisis publics could seek, share, interpret, and disperse information to their networks (Potts, 2014). Social media also allowed crisis publics to perform crisis communication within their assemblages as suggested by Frandsen and Johansen (2010) by a) communicating to each other, b) communicating with each other, c) communicating against each other or the official narratives shared by the government, d) communicating past each other, and e) communicating about each other. As such, the crisis communication was sometimes not moderated by any organizational protocol but by the crisis publics themselves. This process further led to the gathering of truthful information that was verified by the community, which was then used to work towards providing disaster relief to that community. Sometimes, however, this process created increased chances of misinformation generation, which creates more harm than good (Baniya & Potts, 2021). Overall, social media allowed numerous people to communicate and share their suffering and their needs (e.g., need for water, food, and medical services).
The suffering and the need during such catastrophic disasters create chaotic situations that generate communication crises as people begin seeking information, and many emerge who curate and share information. Potts (2014) argued that people need information immediately, so they dig through the entire system to find that information. While actors seek information, they communicate and reach out to other people who might have the expertise or who might be a reliable source of information. During the first weeks after these events, the Nepal Earthquake and Hurricane Maria changed the dynamics and the rhetorical nature of crisis communication. The public not only became passive receivers of the crisis communication but also active responders, interpreters, and transmitters of information (Coombs & Holladay, 2014). These active roles, as my analysis of the actors’ narratives suggest, allowed the actors to take on prominent roles in decentralizing communication on social medial platforms, as “the decentralized communications structure in most social media means that these platforms provide different communicative affordances during disasters” (Murthy & Gross, 2017). This can be seen in actors’ interpretations of messages, individual expressions, and criticisms of official organizations. During the time of crisis, digital tools empower local people’s voices more so than they do those of professional communicators of major media outlets (Frost, 2013).
We now know that crisis communication during a disaster is multidimensional and involves various official and unofficial actors. Technical communicators can play a greater role in providing accurate information and tackling misinformation by working closely with the unofficial technical communicators, non-experts’ community members who have a deeper knowledge of the community and who might not have the same cultural or educational background as technical communicators. To tackle the consequences of any disaster, collaborative work is essential and collaborating with the crisis publics, or the non-experts who work closely with the community, and the actual community members who are suffering will be helpful. In the digital age, this sort of collaborative work, which can be regarded as “distributed work,” takes the form of transnational assemblages that incorporate transcultural communities who are spread across the world and time zones and come together to tackle the consequences of a disaster (See Pigg, 2014). Lastly, to address the injustices during or post-crisis, technical communicators have a civic responsibility in ensuring equity, justice, and to intervene in high-stakes communication processes, even if no institutions sponsor such advocacy for the public (Ding, 2014). Thus, based on the results and my discussion, I make the following recommendations for technical communicators:
- Language, context, and culture-specific crisis communication: Crisis communication has changed over the past 40 years and is mostly responding to crises that are becoming increasingly global as their causes and consequences transcend national and cultural boundaries (Schwarz et al., 2016). As we have seen throughout the discussion, the western knowledge-making practices may create difficulties in facilitating communication in risk or crisis environments (Boiarsky, 2016) because of lack of a) contextual local knowledge, b) awareness of audience needs and requirements, and c) understanding of social justice and intercultural communication practices (Jones et al., 2016). Therefore, technical communicators who have a strong background in understanding language, context, audiences, and intercultural communication can support the crisis communication efforts by providing context and culture-specific crisis communication. One thing to particularly note here is that communication during a disaster happens in varied languages and not just in standard English. Hence, the communicators during a disaster need to adapt to the situation defined by the multiplicity of culture, context, and cultures.
- Crisis communication for social justice: Crisis communication should incorporate social justice efforts that can support the marginalized and the vulnerable communities affected by the disasters (Walton et al., 2019). Communication in such circumstances should be understood from a perspective that focuses on the receiver and represents the various voices of marginalized populations. As such, communication should not privilege one single voice, such as that of the government or a larger NGO but should represent the crisis publics who become a representative voice of the marginalized publics, the local non-expert community members, and most importantly, those who are suffering. Thus, technical communicators should become advocates for incorporating social-justice-oriented crisis communication to work against marginalization that happens in post-disaster situations and investigate the newer forms of social injustices that could happen (Walton et al., 2019). Lastly, technical communicators can build coalitions by working together with community-based organizers or the transnational assemblages themselves and create a space for advocacy.
- Representing community voices in crisis communication: Technical communicators should explore, investigate, and challenge practices that marginalize their targeted audiences within their respective institutions (Walton et al., 2019; Ding, 2014). While working in a high-pressure environment and situation like a crisis, technical communicators should represent the voices of the communities that are suffering by collaborating with the non-expert publics. Catastrophes require very sensitive and effective communication because crises change the dynamics, needs, and reactions of the community that is suffering. One way to observe such dynamic communication, needs, and reactions is by observing social media platforms. Social media platforms create the possibility for understanding the public reaction to a disaster in real-time, including the possibility of an emergent crisis public for disaster management (Murthy & Gross, 2017). Thus, social media can become a space where technical communicators can observe how crisis communication is happening within the communities, identify key actors or influencers, and work towards amplifying the voices of the people.
Disaster response requires collaborative work, and, in such collaboration, technical communicators can play an important role that helps make communication systems flexible and adaptive. In turn, these systems can help save the lives of people who are suffering during and after a calamity. Such knowledge can be used in future research that explores the specific roles of technical communicators that respond to a crisis.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Sweta Baniya is an assistant professor of rhetoric and professional and technical writing and an affiliate faculty of the Center for Coastal Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Through a transnational and non-Western perspective, her research focusses on transnational coalitions in disaster response, crisis communication, and non-western rhetorics. She is working on her first book-length project Transnational Assemblages: Social Justice Oriented Technical Communication in Global Disaster Management where she explores transnational activism in the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake and 2017 Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Email: email@example.com