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New research demonstrates how laughter can be an effective way to help agencies connect with the people they serve during natural hazard events, like a volcanic eruption or earthquake.

A couple weeks into the dramatic Kilauea volcano eruption of 2018, an unexpected hero burst on to the scene: Rusty the Lava Rooster.  

The eruption on Hawai’i Island was a complicated crisis that started in May and lasted over four months, injuring dozens of people and displacing 2,500 more, destroying over 700 homes and structures, and costing hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tourism and local business revenue. Beyond disrupting lives and livelihoods, lava flows covered many cherished landscapes and places, preventing community members from accessing them.  

Several residents near the eruption site began livestreaming lava flows that were oozing into their neighborhood about two weeks into the eruption. One of those videos, which the USGS Volcano Hazards Program’s Twitter account shared to almost 100,000 followers, stood out because of a surprising soundtrack provided by one rooster’s high-pitched cock-a-doodle-doo.  

Rusty the Lava Rooster, as he came to be known, quickly gained celebrity status across social media channels. The community and public’s willingness to laugh at the absurdity of a crowing rooster amid bright orange-red lava signaled that some people were receptive to humor even while a very real threat was unfolding.  

“Social media gives us an opportunity to share more of our personal experiences to develop a sense of trust with others,” Sara McBride, a social scientist with the USGS, said.  

A thoughtful joke shared on an agency’s social media account, like the USGS Volcanoes Twitter account, can help lower barriers that often keep scientists and the public from having meaningful connections online, McBride said.  

McBride and colleague Jessica Ball, a geologist with USGS, recently published on a conceptual model to help guide agencies looking to use humor to ease tension during crises. The model emphasizes the importance of timing – there’s nothing cringier than joking too soon or too late – and keeping humor appropriate, inoffensive, kind, and compassionate to people facing a crisis.  

McBride and Ball did not look at performance or comedy, like standup acts, satires, farce, and slapstick for their study. “Communicating about a crisis is not for entertainment,” McBride said.  

Humor varies by culture and location, among many variables, so a reference to something from popular culture may not resonate the same way for everyone. It’s also important to consider the kind of humor you use. Mocking, for example, is inappropriate. In a crisis, people need to feel safe and have a safe space for emotional release.  

“We need to respect that people are feeling fragile during a crisis and an agency official should not exacerbate that feeling,” McBride and Ball said. Instead, agencies can use light humor to provide relief. Laughing can relieve nervousness, anxiety, and stress. 

“It’s best to stick with self-deprecation, animals, and sometimes pointing out the absurdity of a situation,” McBride said.  

Just ask Rusty the Lava Rooster’s many fans in Hawai’i and around the world.   

Read more about their research published here.  

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