Initial Publication Date: April 11, 2014

Teaching risk and crisis communication in the context of natural disasters

Bruno Takahashi, School of Journalism and Department of Communication, Michigan State University


Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever recorded on Earth, pummeled the Philippines in November 2013. The Philippines, an archipelago, is composed of more than 7,000 islands, and the communities affected by the devastation are interspersed in islands separated by bodies of water. The powerful storm knocked down power and phone lines, and the geography made communication in the affected areas extremely difficult.

Government personnel, first respondents, media professionals, and other individuals involved in responding to the issue, experienced difficulties in accessing reliable information sources. In addition, some 10 percent of Filipinos live outside the country, and many overseas Filipinos had to rely on social media to monitor the situation in their home communities and keep in touch with their loved ones. In this context, other non-traditional information sources and communication platforms, such as Twitter, became salient.

This case study considers the patterns of social media use by those affected during the disaster, to document both effective and ineffective information dissemination strategies. Understanding such patterns can be useful in future communication responses that can better suit the needs of communities in search not only of physical help, but also of emotional assistance in extremely difficult and uncertain times. The case study identifies ways in which community resilience can be strengthened through the development of reliable information and communication channels.

Individuals with expertise/responsibilities in the following areas have helped create the case study:
  • First respondents (e.g. Red Cross)
  • National, regional, and local government authorities
  • Local journalists
  • International media
  • NGOs
  • Scientists

Key teaching points:
  • Understanding the resilience that people in developing nations have developed in the context of frequent natural disasters affecting their livelihoods.
  • Determining the applications of new communication technologies in improving responses to natural disasters.
  • Determining the roles of media and journalists in the context of natural disasters within a risk and crisis communication framework.

How this example is used in the classroom:
I have not used this case study in class yet. I developed this based on some of my ongoing research on the topic. I anticipate conducting a 3-hour class solely focusing on this case study. The first part of the class would focus on understanding the issue from the perspective of the science (weather patterns and maybe climate change links), the history of typhoons in the Philippines, and the institutional capacity of the country in regards to its ability to respond to this kind of natural disasters. The second part of the class would focus primarily in understanding the issues found in the infrastructure and its effects on communication channels, and the use of alternative media sources (e.g. social media).


Chan, E. Y., Liu, S., & Hung, K. K. (2013). Typhoon Haiyan and beyond. The Lancet, 382(9908), 1873.

Cranmer, H. H., & Biddinger, P. D. (2014). Typhoon Haiyan and the professionalization of disaster response. New England journal of medicine.

Houston, J.B., Hawthorne, J., Perreault, M.F., Park, E.H., Goldstein Hode, M., Halliwell, M.R., Turner McGowen, S.E., Davis, R., Vaid, S., McElderry, J.A., & Griffith, S.A. (In press). Social media and disasters: A functional framework for use in disaster planning, response, and research. Disasters.

Hughes, A. L., & Palen, L. (2009). Twitter adoption and use in mass convergence and emergency events. International Journal of Emergency Management, 6(3), 248-260.