Open Access Open Access  Restricted Access Subscription or Fee Access

Engaging stakeholders through social media and emergent organizations: The West Virginia Water Crisis Recovery as a case study

Morgan C. Getchell, PhD, Timothy L. Sellnow, PhD


The West Virginia water contamination crisis began on the morning of January 9, 2014, and left approximately 300,000 customers of the West Virginia American Water Company unable to use the water in their homes for any purpose other than flushing their toilets. Given the lack of appropriate response from the established organizations involved, many emergent organizations formed to help fill unmet informational and physical needs of the affected population. Crisis researchers have observed these ephemeral organizations for decades, but the recent proliferation of information communication technologies have made their activities more widespread and observable. In West Virginia, their activities were indispensable to the affected population and helped restore a sense of normalcy. This article analyzes four emergent organizations that formed in response to the West Virginia water contamination and the functions they performed in different phases of this crisis.


emergent organizations, crisis communication, emergency response, social media, West Virginia water contamination

Full Text:



Hermann CF: Some consequences of crisis which limit the viability of organizations. Adm Sci Q. 1963; 8: 61-82. doi:10.2307/2390887.

Seeger MW, Sellnow TL, Ulmer RR: Communication and Organizational Crisis. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

Drabek TE, McEntire DA: Emergent phenomena and the sociology of disaster: Lessons, trends and opportunities from the research literature. Disaster Prev Manag. 2003; 12(2): 97-112. doi:10.1108/09653560310474214.

Tierney KJ: Conceptualizing and Measuring Organizational and Community Resilience: Lessons from the Emergency Response Following the September 11, 2001 Attack on the World Trade Center. Newark, DE: Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, 2003.

Black DR, Dietz JE, Stirratt AA, et al.: Do social media have a place in public health emergency response? J Emerg Manag. 2015; 13(3): 217-225. doi:10.5055/jem.2015.0235.

Siskey A, Islam T: Social media best practices in emergency management. J Emerg Manag. 2016; 14: 113-125. doi:10.5055/jem.2016.0278.

Palen L, Vieweg S, Liu SB, et al.: Crisis in a networked world features of computer-mediated communication in the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech Event. Soc Sci Comput Rev. 2009; 27(4): 467-480. doi:10.1177/0894439309332302.

Lachlan KA, Spence PR, Lin X: Expressions of risk awareness and concern through Twitter: On the utility of using the medium as an indication of audience needs. Comput Hum Behav. 2014; 35: 554-559. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.02.029.

Westerman DW, Spence PR, Van Der Heide B: Social media as an information source: Recency of updates and credibility of information. J Comput Mediat Commun. 2014; 19: 171-183. doi:10.1111/jcc4.12041.

Bennett DM: How do emergency managers use social media platforms? J Emerg Manag. 2014; 12: 251-256. doi:10.5055/jem.2014.0178.

Lanzara GF: Ephemeral organizations in extreme environments: Emergence, strategy, extinction [I]. J Manag Stud. 1983; 20(1): 71-95. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6486.1983.tb00199.x.

Stallings RA, Quarantelli EL: Emergent citizen groups and emergency management. Public Adm Rev. 1985; 45: 93-100. doi:10.2307/3135003.

Sebastian IM, Bui TX: Emergent groups for emergency response-theoretical foundations and information design implications. Presented at: AMCIS 2009 Proceedings. Paper 638. 2009; San

Francisco, CA.

Hughes AL, Tapia AH: Social media in crisis: When professional responders meet digital volunteers. J Homel Secur Emerg Manag. 2015; 12(3): 679-706. doi:10.1515/jhsem-2014-0080.

Shklovski I, Palen L, Sutton J: Finding community through information and communication technology in disaster response. Presented at: Proceedings of the ACM 2008 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work - CSCW 08, November 2008: 127-136; San Diego, CA. doi:10.1145/1460563.1460584.

Hu Q, Kapucu N: Information communication technology utilization for effective emergency management networks. Public Manag Rev. 2014; 18(3): 323-348. doi:10.1080/14719037.2014.969762.

Porter AJ: Emergent organization and responsive technologies in crisis. Manag Commun Q. 2012; 27(1): 6-33. doi:10.1177/0893318912459042.

Palen L, Liu SB: Citizen communications in crisis: Anticipating a future of ICT-supported public participation. Presented at: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Ffactors in Computing Systems, 2007: 727-736; San Jose, CA.

Starbird K, Palen L: Voluntweeters: Self-organizing by digital volunteers in times of crisis. Presented at: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, May 2011: 1071-1080; Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Starbird K: Digital volunteerism during disaster: Crowdsourcing information processing. Presented at: Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, May 7-12, 2011: 7-12; Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Kent ML, Taylor M: Building dialogic relationships through the World Wide Web. Public Relat Rev. 1998; 24(3): 321-334.

Kent ML, Taylor M: Toward a dialogic theory of public relations. Public Relat Rev. 2002; 28(1): 21-37. doi:10.1016/S0363-8111(99)80143-X.

Briones RL, Kuch B, Liu BF, et al.: Keeping up with the digital age: How the American Red Cross uses social media to build relationships. Public Relat Rev. 2011; 37(1): 37-43. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2010.12.006.

Buzzanell PM: Resilience: Talking, resisting, and imagining new normalcies into being. J Commun. 2010; 60(1): 1-14.

Tierney K, Bruneau M: Conceptualizing and measuring resilience: A key to disaster loss reduction. TR News. Washington, DC: The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2007.

Norris FH, Stevens SP, Pfefferbaum B, et al.: Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capacities, and strategy for disaster readiness. Am J Community Psychol. 2008; 41(1-2): 127-150.

Ward K, Gutman D: 300,000 lack water in Southern W.Va. The Charleston Gazette. January 10, 2014. Available at Accessed December 19, 2018.

Gabriel T: Thousands without water after spill in West Virginia. The New York Times. January 10, 2014. Available at Accessed October 1, 2018.

Plummer B: Five big questions about the massive chemical spill in West Virginia. The Washington Post. January 21, 2014. Available at Accessed January 21, 2014.

Goldenberg S: West Virginia after the spill: We do not drink it. My pets do not drink it. The Guardian. February 14, 2014. Available at Accessed December 19, 2018.

Ward K: Ex freedom official southern sentenced to 30 days, $420k fine. The Charleston Gazette. February 17, 2016. Available at Accessed February 7, 2019.

Yin RK: Case Study Research: Design and Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.

Boyatzis RE: Transforming Qualitative Information: Thematic Analysis and Development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998.

Lindlof TR, Taylor BC: Qualitative Communication Research Methods. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002.

WV Clean Water Hub: Available at Accessed February 22, 2016.

Bryson K: Erin Brockovich town hall meeting on WV water crisis. WV Water Crisis Blog. January 14, 2014. Available at Accessed December 19, 2018.

West Virginia Moms for Safe Water: Available at Accessed February 22, 2016.

Easy Action of the Day for WV Water: Available at Accessed February 22, 2016.

Rodriguez H, Trainor J, Quarantelli EL: Rising to the challenges of a catastrophe: The emergent and prosocial behavior following Hurricane Katrina. Ann Am Acad Pol Soc Sci. 2006; 604(1): 82-101. doi:10.1177/0002716205284677.

Farnham S, Pedersen E, Kirkpatrick R: Observation of Katrina/ Rita Groove deployment: Addressing social and communication challenges of ephemeral groups. Presented at: Proceedings of the 3rd International ISCRAM Conference, May 2006: 39-49; Newark, NJ.

Wukich C, Mergel IA: Closing the citizen-government communication gap: Content, audience, and network analysis of government tweets. J Homel Secur Emerg Manag. 2014; 12(3): 707-735. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2488681.



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2019 Journal of Emergency Management