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Intention to Comply with Food Safety Messages in a Crisis as a Function of Message Source and Message Reliability

Freberg, Karen J.
Committee Members: 
Dr. Michael Palancher
May 2011

Abstract: A key role of public relations is to manage crises, unexpected yet unpredictable events that cause emotional and physical harm (Coombs, 2007). Among the challenges in handling a crisis effectively is dealing with the various media in which information is presented. Because the use of social media in a crisis is a relatively new phenomenon, further understanding of the challenges and opportunities of these media is warranted. Part of meeting this challenge requires precise modeling of consumer responses to safety messages. To remedy gaps in our understanding of social media and food safety crisis communications, consumer intent to comply with a food safety message was evaluated within the framework of the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB; Ajzen, 1991). Superimposed on the TPB intention model were possible moderator variables of message source (professional versus user-generated) and message reliability (confirmed versus unconfirmed information). Three focus groups provided background for the construction of a research instrument according to guidelines specified by Francis, Eccles, Johnston, Walker, Foy, et al. (2004). A 2x2 experimental design with four scenarios (message source x reliability), and realism checks of the scenarios were conducted. A pilot test with 130 undergraduate university students preceded administration of the instrument to a representative U.S. consumer panel of 400 participants. Results indicated that intent to comply with a food safety message was higher in response to messages in professional sources than in user-generated sources, but that the majority of this effect could be explained by participant age, which in turn predicted use of social media. Message reliability did not affect intent to comply—confirmed and unconfirmed messages had similar effects on intent to comply. All aspects of the TPB were confirmed by the current results with the exception of perceived behavioral control, which was so consistently strong that it was unable to predict variations in intent to comply with a food safety message. Consequently, the current data support the Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975) rather than the TPB. Implications of the results for public relations and crisis communications, limitations of the study, and recommendations for future research are discussed.