One of the hardest things that brand reps have to plan for in social media is what to do in the event of a national tragedy.
Perspective comes first, of course.
When news broke about the school shootings in Connecticut on Friday, the
marketing firm where I work had to decide how to advise our clients.
There is no single right answer, but there are plenty of wrong ones. Our
goal was to actively avoid the wrong ones.
As we saw in the aftermath of the Newtown school shootings last Friday,
marketers are still learning how—if at all—to respond when such
devastating instances arise.
Here are a few things we can take away from these experiences:
Suspend all posting while you decide your best course of action.
There are some national news stories that warrant going dark. When
you’re deciding whether to suspend your brand’s social media activity,
it’s best to stop posting. Hold off on all scheduled posts, and get as
many key stakeholders in on the conversation as possible.
Weigh the pros and cons of posting. On Friday, my firm had more than a
dozen brands with posts scheduled for that afternoon. The pros paled in
comparison to the potential cons of posting for most brands, but every
company is different.
Brands such as Dove went ahead with their scheduled posts on Friday
afternoon, and although the backlash wasn’t severe or widespread, there
were comments questioning why they would post anything
while the nation mourned. The company posted here
with a chance to win body wash and pajamas. One [sic’d] commenter said:
“Here is m soap box: you suck. You are the only manufacturer on my
followers who are not following our tragedy. I am so disappointed in
This was followed by another commenter, who wrote:
“Some have even gone silent for the day out of respect for those innocent children. Very disappointed in Dove.”
It can make a brand look out of touch when it’s broadcasting anything
promotional during a time when the bulk of its community is focused on
something else. If you’re going to interrupt their news feed in real
time, it had better be worth it, and it had better be sensitive to the
emotion that your community is experiencing.
Around lunchtime Friday, we decided that most of our brands—with the
exception of a couple—would remain dark over the weekend out of respect
for the victims and their families. It also respected the fact that our
fans were not in a mood to be marketed to.
Join the discussion carefully and thoughtfully.
Make sure you know what you’re getting your brand into. In the aftermath
of Friday’s tragic events, the discussion immediately turned to such
contentious issues as gun control and mental health funding. Some of
those discussions could make their way to the comments section of your
post if you wish to publicly express your condolences.
Companies shouldn’t be racking up “likes” and comments with someone
else’s tragedy. It goes against a fundamental rule I try to follow for
Facebook when it comes to brands: If any other organization could
logically post this message, hold off. It holds true in this instance,
as well as in everyday posts. That is to say, if something is so broad,
vague, or out of voice for the brand that it could appear anywhere else,
don’t do it. Any message of condolence would fall under this category.
Take a look at this post, which was a text-only status update that was broadcast last Friday afternoon:
“Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by the tragic events in Connecticut today.”
Can you guess which brand shared this post, which received more than
4,700 “likes,” 100-plus comments, and nearly 60 shares? Of course not.
It was Sony
, but that’s beside the point.
Reps for the brand entered it into the conversation, and the company
ended up taking some criticism in the comments section. Among the few
facts that came out about the shooter late Friday was the fact that he
played video games. Sony, which makes the PlayStation console, saw
[again, sic’d] comments like this start popping up:
“Sony, i have been a loyal lifelong user of your products. However, one
has to wonder if the long-term usage of your more violent video games
didn't have an impact on today's tragedy. I feel it is an ethical
corporate responsibility for a large and powerful organization such as
yours to make a determination with regards to this. You can truly be a
leader here, I hope you do the right thing.”
I’m not saying Sony was wrong to post what it did. But I can tell you
that after Sony posted, brand reps didn’t weigh in again in the comment
thread. That’s something I would never advise a brand to do—ever.
Posting something and walking away from it would be No. 1 on my list of
community management no-nos.
Yet from an engagement standpoint, it was one of Sony’s most successful
posts in December. I’m not picking on Sony, because it wasn’t the only
company that did this. It’s just a potential outcome that marketers have
to consider when they’re entering a conversation about a national or
If your company is working to help the victims, then weigh in. During
Superstorm Sandy, we decided that if our brands had something of value
to add to the conversation—for example, a way to donate, or the message
that they were going to donate their product(s) to the victims (along
with an encouragement to the fan base to help out in whatever way they
can)—then it would be OK to post. Otherwise, it’s not worth it.
Start posting again when it makes sense.
There’s no uniform answer to this question: When should we resume
posting as usual?
Measure your content for the weeks to come, and check your language. If
there’s anything in your language that could be construed as
insensitive, modify your post.
Do what feels right. You might not have to be as extreme as ESPN
, which told its employees not to tweet about sports and asked its anchors to refrain from using the words shooter and pistol
during broadcasts. But you should be mindful.
As always, each brand is different and will have distinct approaches and
needs when such situations arise. I’ll leave you with the same advice I
gave to my staff on Friday: Weigh the risk, have some empathy, and use
your best judgment.