Land & Environment

Hot on the Presses: Capturing an Audience During High Heat Emergencies

By Lael Gilbert |

It's hard to get heard on social media, even when the message is a warning from the National Weather Service about excessive heat. New research explores strategies for better dissemination of weather-emergency messaging.

As the average referee, parent of a teenager, or pundit knows, persuading an audience to listen can be an uphill battle. In this information-soaked age, much of our communication — even when it’s essential to health and safety — gets lost in the torrent of headlines, marketing messages and cat videos that cross our screens. Strategies for creating successful social media messages that protect public health and safety is the subject of new research from Yajie Li, Amanda Hughes and Peter Howe, currently featured in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Societyas a Paper of Note.

Some messages are more important than others — such as excessive heat warnings from the National Weather Service. Heat hazards pose a serious threat to people in the United States, causing more deaths than floods, hurricanes and tornadoes combined over the past decade or so, according to Howe, who is from the Department of Environment & Society in the Quinney College of Natural Resources. But when agencies and organizations use social media platforms like Twitter to share news about weather hazards, it is a bit of a crapshoot knowing which messages people will take seriously enough to act on and to share with others.

Message persuasion and message diffusion are two important aspects of a successful communication strategy for social media. Persuasion motivates people to take action, and diffusion enables more people to get their eyes on the information. The team explored how these two factors relate — how messages that are more persuasive may prompt people to share to a wider network.

The researchers delineated four kinds of messaging strategies managers use to get people to take protective actions during natural hazards: information about hazard intensity (“the forecast temperature is …”), messages about health risk susceptibility (“heat-sensitive people are at high risk”), warnings on health impact (“stay hydrated to avoid heat-related illnesses”), and response instruction (“use air conditioning today”). They found that all four types were variously persuasive, but that messages that included multiple types of these strategies were most likely to be shared and viewed by a larger audience. And depending on the kind of heat-related event on the horizon, different combinations of these communications could spur greater dissemination of the message over Twitter.

“This gives managers evidence-based information about how their warnings are being understood and processed,” said Li, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas who conducted the study as part of her doctoral dissertation at Utah State University. “Messages about extreme heat events can literally save lives, so understanding how to better communicate them is essential.”

In recent years, agencies and organizations have increasingly used social media to communicate with the public about natural hazards and disasters. Federal, state and local governments, via emergency management agencies, meteorological departments and health departments use Twitter and Facebook to share timely information before, during and after a variety of hazardous events. Understanding how their audience is (and is not) digesting this information is essential to successful communication — and ultimately to protect lives, the researchers said.


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


Peter Howe
Environment and Society
Associate Professor


Research 786stories Environment 228stories Climate 137stories Communication 38stories

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