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College of Information and Communications

Saving lives through social media

Dr. Brett Robertson, new to the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, is definitely not new to the field of communication. His research aims to serve a greater purpose — to aid those impacted by natural disasters and encourage people to prepare for them. Robertson’s personal experience and expertise in organizational and risk communication and technology allows him to evaluate how people use social media to access crucial information during an emergency and assess how it could ultimately aid them when in the midst of a disaster.

“I am really interested in how people use social media and how it can be used to potentially save lives,” Robertson said.

His goal is to analyze and understand how people prepare for a disaster and become aware of the risks they face. The communication context of his research is vital. It specifically focuses on how people communicate leading up to and during a disaster. Robertson says that his research demonstrates that “the community is where you will find your best information.” More specifically, he says engaging with neighbors and the surrounding community is the biggest contribution to taking preparedness seriously.

Growing up in Southern California, Robertson experienced a multitude of disasters. He distinctively recounts the 1994 Northridge earthquake as a catastrophe that left a “profound and lasting impact on [his] preparedness mentality.” He was at the mercy of landslides, wildfires and earthquakes each day, and he “adopted the Boy Scouts’ ‘Be Prepared’ motto” as a result. From there, his passion for understanding the way people communicate and using it to take preventative measures in disaster contexts only grew and ultimately led him to his career in disaster communication research.

National surveys show that only a quarter of Americans are either concerned about disasters or prepared for one. Because of this, Robertson hopes his research can help people realize that disasters can be severe and everyone is susceptible to them, depending on geographical location. He has conducted field work in retirement communities in both Orange County, California, and Central Texas. He found that retirement communities are the least prepared, have less access to resources, and that the infrastructure crumbles during disasters. Robertson’s ultimate question is, “How do we get people who assume they'll be protected in a facility to better prepare on their own?”

COVID-19 added an additional strain on disaster preparedness and on the availability of resources. When the virus was first introduced into the U.S., grocery store shelves began to empty, personal protective equipment was nowhere to be found and people began to take extreme measures for their safety. This really was the first large-scale push for being well-equipped for unprecedented events, and Robertson says that disaster preparedness is here to stay.

“I think the pandemic opened eyes to disaster planning, but people also hoarded,” he says.

Robertson says there are ways to be prepared for a disaster without diluting resources for others. The next step in his research will most likely look at how COVID-19 has changed people’s mindsets on being prepared and how COVID concerns can be an additional obstacle when dealing with disaster.

Robertson describes himself as a “pracademic,” which he defines as practical academics and research that is seen, understood and utilized. Though he attends national and international conferences to disseminate his research in an academic setting, he also disseminates his research more broadly so that it can be useful in the community setting.

Communication is a vital part of Robertson’s life and studies, and he is using his growing understanding of it for the greater good and safety of society.

Augusta Roach

Augusta Roach

Augusta Roach is a freshman in the South Carolina Honors College majoring in mass communications.  From Easley, South Carolina, she plans to pursue a career as a communications director. She interviewed Robertson for an assignment in her Honors JOUR 101 course, taught by Dr. Andrea Tanner.

Author’s Note

I chose to interview Dr. Brett Robertson because I am fascinated by the need for human communication and I have been interested in natural disasters for most of my childhood. I enjoyed speaking with Robertson and gaining a deeper insight into his field of work. I found that I would definitely consider joining this research and studying ways to better aid and prepare marginalized communities. Disasters cannot always be prevented, but you can always be prepared, and learning how to incentivize preparedness within neighborhoods and communities would be so fulfilling.

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