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VCU professors pandemic paper wins national award

May 3, 2021

Posted in: News

By Zobia Nayyar, Communications Assistant

Professors at Virginia Commonwealth University, and other universities, won two awards at the International Public Relations Research Conference after spending quarantine working on a paper, focused on the correlation between social media and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jeanine Guidry, Dr. Nicole O’Donnell, Dr. Aloni Hill and Professor Vivan Medina-Messner as well as Dr. Shana Meganck from James Madison University and Dr. Alessandro Lovari from the University of Cagliari in Cagliari, Italy won the “Institute for Public Relations W. Ward White Awards for Top Two Papers of Practical Significance” and the “International ABERJE Award” for their research study titled “Tweeting a Pandemic: Communicating #COVID19 across the globe.”


The study discussed how health departments of 12 different countries shared relevant information about COVID-19 on Twitter in 2020.

“A lot of research has shown that Twitter is an effective tool for communicating with audiences or the public about health, because it allows people to not only receive information but they can also engage with the public health departments and each other, so we just wanted to see what are they talking about,” Aloni Hill said.

The paper found that countries that had higher cases were more likely to talk about preventative measures, such as wearing a mask, social distancing etc., but in countries that had a lower number of cases like Singapore, where it was the norm to already take preventative measures, they might not have communicated or tweeted that as much. 

They also found that while they did talk about preventative measures a lot, they did not talk much on testing. 

“There are a number of factors to consider but maybe because testing wasn't as available at the time, so there wasn't as much messaging about testing and the effectiveness of testing so that was one thing that was missing,” Hill said.

The countries that the study includes are Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, Nigeria, Singapore, South Africa and the U.S.

“We’ve all seen how countries across the world have taken different approaches to reduce COVID-19 transmission,” Nicole O’Donnell said. “Our research team was especially interested in how communication strategies differed across these nations.”

O’Donnell went on to explain how there has been an increase in the number of people turning to social media for news and information, especially when it came to information regarding the coronavirus and its implications.

“I think that during COVID-19 there has been an especially high need for timely and accurate information about the virus. Public health departments had a unique opportunity to meet this need by communicating information about prevention, treatment and testing,” O’Donnell said.

Many common social media platforms used for news and information include Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, which are just a few of the top most used social media apps in 2021.

“One interesting thing that we found was that few individuals replied to tweets from these public health departments. Health departments across nations are using social media to share important information about COVID-19 with their audiences. However, they are not really encouraging dialogue,” O’Donnell said.

She continued by saying that social media provides people with a space to ask questions and encourages dialogue, which she said would be useful during times of crisis like this pandemic.

The team of professors have been working on the paper for quite some time, and Hill said it was humbling to have won the awards after all their hard work.

“When you do research, a lot of times you do it because it's something of interest to you, but to actually be recognized by your peers is very humbling,” Hill said. “It shows that the work that you're doing is not in vain. It has a purpose, and it’s helping people; it’s guiding people.” 

Peyton Rowe, Interim Associate Director in the Robertson School, expressed how proud she is of the educators on their wins.

“Our faculty does amazing work but to have their paper recognized at the International Public Relations Research Conference is an honor and well deserved,” Rowe said. “It proves to use and others how ground-breaking and impactful our faculty’s work really is.”