How to Respond to Tragedy on Social Media

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How to Respond to Tragedy on Social Media

By: Christine Freschi

During big pop cultural events like award shows and sporting events, brands often set up war rooms full of teams who are ready and waiting to capitalize on big moments and immediately create relevant, clever social media posts. Think Oreo’s “Dunk in the Dark” tweet during the 2013 Super Bowl blackout. Or when Arby’s responded to Pharrell’s hat at the Grammy’s, or when DiGiornio live-tweeted the Sound of Music. These brands were able to provide enjoyable commentary on popular events while projecting a fun, savvy brand image. A win-win situation all around.

But what about when negative, even tragic news moments occur? Brands should be prepared to ask themselves, “What is the appropriate response here?”

It’s a tough question, and I’ll admit that as we manage one brand’s social media presence, my team and I are still working on the answer ourselves. However, in our experience, we’ve managed to come up with a few solid guidelines for how to deal with tragedy on social media.

If you don’t have something real to say, don’t say anything at all.

Brands are often criticized for not being genuine in light of current events, or for taking a real-world tragedy and turning it into an opportunity to promote themselves. Last year, HuffPo rounded up the “most cringeworthy” 9/11 tweets from brands, arguing that year after year brands use the “worst day in recent American history to promote themselves using cheesy quotes and branded photo.”

As human beings, we social media managers are likely to be genuinely upset or sentimental when tragedy strikes, and we will feel compelled to respond over social media. We want to say something meaningful and show the world we care, which is fine from an individual perspective—but it’s easy to forget what this can look like when it’s coming from a brand.

When the public sees a corporate brand respond to tragedy on social, they’re often suspicious of how the company is trying to capitalize on the moment for corporate gain. As such, unless there is an exigent demand for your brand to respond, remember that it’s ok to say nothing. Sometimes the best move is taking down all posts for the day, and tweeting nothing at all. It’s a genuine and humble way to honor the moment. Don’t worry—no one will think you’ve forgotten, and no one will think the brand doesn’t care.

Social media is not a 9-to-5 job—you need to be watching for breaking news at all times.

Social media managers to need to always be paying attention to what’s going on on their Twitter/Facebook feeds and to what’s going on in the news. In moments when the world is blindsided by a terrible tragedy, the first step is to halt all social media posts. Many companies use scheduling tools like Hootsuite that allow you to schedule posts to publish later in the day or week. These tools are great for giving employees the weekends and nights off from posting to social, but they can be terrible if you forget to halt all posts in light of breaking news.

For instance, on the night the Ferguson trial verdict was announced, the Red Sox account tweeted, “How’s your Monday night going?” Needless to say, the response to that tweet was anything but positive.

When big news breaks, immediately delete your pre-scheduled posts; otherwise, risk sounding tone-deaf at best, and deeply offensive at worst. Next, check your most recent posted content, and read it from the perspective of someone who’s torn up over the news event. An airplane went down—is your last post about travel? Take it down. If a well-loved person died and your last post is about getting your life insurance in order, delete!

Make it personal. Not gimmicky.

If you must respond, remind followers that there’s a human behind the handle: help followers get out of the mindset that every brand tweet is an attempt to capitalize and make money. To do this, perhaps you bring a person into the post, writing something like, “Our CEO John and the staff here at [company] are taking a minute to honor [event.]” Or use Retweets to your advantage: retweet the company CEO or a renowned figurehead who tweeted their personal condolences about the news. Leave out the branded details—do not use watermarks, hashtags, or brand-oriented photos, nor anything that will take away from the semblance of genuine condolence.

The beautiful and terrifying thing about social media is the emphasis on real-time engagement. While it’s fun for brands to be creative and capitalize on the positive popular cultural moments, it’s just as important for each brand to have a strategy for responding to the bad ones.

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