How should you respond online to a tragic event?

With social media’s 24/7 news cycle, it can be hard for PR and marketing pros to post appropriate sentiments after disaster strikes. Follow these tips to avoid trouble.

Many of us use social media to promote our businesses and our personal brands. What to do, though, when our world faces a crisis—as has occurred all too often in recent months?

Orlando, Nice, Dallas are just a few tragic events that recently rocked our world. In these grave situations, what’s the correct social media etiquette? Do we post? If so, what do we post? Or is it better not to post at all in the wake of a tragic event?

You may remember when social media guru Guy Kawasaki took some heat after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 for not shutting down his automated posts. People felt it showed his insensitivity, with many lambasting him (which, by the way, didn’t sit well with Kawasaki).

Unfortunately, it happens in every such occurrence. We see organizations and individuals being criticized for allowing their regularly scheduled posts to appear as usual. Some outsiders even scold those who don’t pause their posts. Perhaps many make mistakes because they truly don’t know how to manage social media during these events.

Curious to know the best way to handle posting in these situations, I asked some social media and PR experts to weigh in on the issue. Understanding there are many nuances to this issue and no “one size fits all” answer, here are some of their responses:

  • Christopher Penn, author, speaker and vice president of marketing technology at Shift Communications (@cspenn), says you can’t have a blanket policy on this issue. He recommends taking into three factors: account proximity, impact to your audience and alignment with your brand. “Ultimately, use sound human judgment. If you have to ask, ‘Will this offend our audience?’ the answer is probably yes—and you shouldn’t do it.”
  • Ann Handley, best-selling author and head of content (@MarketingProfs), believes brands should stay quiet, unless they have a connection to the situation or to an individual involved or affected. “Death is not a marketing opportunity. Neither is tragedy of any sort. If it’s a tragedy that’s dominating every news outlet, brands should keep mum. It’s partly an issue of respect, and partly one of coming across tone-deaf if they continue with business as usual.”
  • What about automated posts? Eric Tung (@ericttung), a social media coach, consultant and speaker, says companies should pause all scheduled posts in the aftermath of a national or international tragedy. “In these cases, it can seem insensitive, if not downright rude, to continue posting promotional posts when others are in mourning. Even worse, your posts could be seen—whether intended or not—to be playing off the tragedy.” What should brand managers do? “Companies and even individuals can save their reputation by pausing scheduled posts. Many tools now allow you to do this either by deleting post schedules, or by removing connected social accounts—and focusing on helping individuals where possible.”
  • Monitoring is as important as posting, says Shonali Burke, president and CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting (@shonali), who advises brand managers who take advantage of automating posts to actively check online conversations, as well. “If you’re going to use tools to automate at least some of your social media activity, it’s important for you to choose a tool that lets you hit ‘pause’ quickly, and restart as quickly (@Buffer is great for this). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with automated posts; what gets folks upset is when those automated posts aren’t paused in the wake of a great tragedy. Not doing so says that the brand isn’t listening, is asleep at the wheel. Make sure your listening program involves real-time monitoring, and a way to activate your social media strategist/manager on short notice, if needed.”
  • How about using a disaster as a promotional opportunity? Ed Leake, managing director of Midas Media (@edleake), says, “What feels particularly awkward is when a brand or person tries to use a tragedy as a sales opportunity, i.e., they chime in or comment with a motive not to empathize, but to draw exposure to their own brand or product.” What if your company is donating to a charity or a cause that comes as a result of such events? “Then spreading the word is to be admired. The risk here is only when your intentions do not match your brand ideals and values. If there’s an obvious mismatch, people will typically turn cynical to your message.”
  • Tread lightly, advises Rob Wynne, owner of Wynne Communications and Forbes contributor (@robwynne), lest you chime in too quickly. “The safest route is not to respond in an emotional manner, especially on subjects of politics or race, as there’s bound to be someone in your organization, or a client, who may take offense. In 140 characters, sometimes intentions can be misread.” So what is OK to post? “Expressing your ‘thoughts and prayers’ to the victims makes people who post feel better, and that’s pretty harmless.”

A few takeaways our experts agree on:

  • Don’t use a disaster as a promotional opportunity.
  • If in doubt, it’s better not to post. You could do more harm than good.
  • If you truly have something to contribute, do so—in a human way.
  • Yes, it is necessary to have a policy and a plan in place on how you’ll handle social media when these situations arise.

What’s your take on this issue? How does your company or client handle posting in tragic circumstances? Do you pause automated posts, or is it business as usual?

Michelle Garrett is a PR consultant and writer at Garrett Public Relations. Follow her on Twitter @PRisUS or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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