In a disaster, should your organization stay off social media?

Tragedy-related tweets, even those expressing ‘thoughts and prayers,’ often ring hollow and can even seem opportunistic. It’s usually better to maintain a respectful silence.

These dark days we experience together—another school shooting, a terrorist attack nearby or across the country—challenge our collective conscience and our practice as communicators.

What is a given organization’s responsibility, in these moments, to add value to the online conversation happening in real time?

If we have the opportunity to help our communities feel safer and be better informed amid chaos, shouldn’t we? When do we have the right to weigh in?

A more important question, perhaps, and one addressed far less: When is it our organization’s responsibility to stay quiet?

What is “going dark”?

Go dark: To not be able to be reached by standard means of communication (i.e. phone / email / txt) for a several hour period —Urban Dictionary

The term can reference online anonymity or disappearance. In the military, it’s used to describe a communication that appears to have ended but that has actually moved to a private space, where it can’t be monitored-much like the dark web or dark social.

I would argue that “going dark” on social media is one of your most important and most underused brand strategies.

Too often, I see national conversations unfold across my Twitter feed as unexpected, arguably irrelevant organizations jump right in. Companies in food service, pop culture, manufacturing or B2B sales feel they have carte blanche to offer their “thoughts and prayers”—but to what end?

Most of the time, this added commentary not only does not add value, but it makes your organization appear opportunistic and insensitive. Instead of increasing goodwill, it results in sarcastic responses from fans and risks reputational damage.

So, when should you weigh in? What difficult conversations does your organization have the right to join?

When it’s hyper relevant

Relevance is a moving target. It’s defined as “closely connected or important to the matter at hand,” so it’s your responsibility to determine (often case by case) when a national story or tragic incident is close enough to your organization’s raison d’etre. Here are the most common connection points I see:

Connection to your geography

The small Oregon town of Roseburg was turned upside down in the span of 10 minutes. The day of the Roseburg Community College shooting was a blur of media updates and emails among my colleagues and me. Should we, or shouldn’t we, share words of condolence on our social media sites?

That morning I quickly drafted an internal message to my fellow communicators, asking that they suspend pre-scheduled social media posts in light of the day’s events.

Given that ours was a fellow Oregon school, and given our satellite nursing student body being only an hour’s driving distance from Roseburg, it soon became apparent that our institution should not stay quiet.

The next morning OHSU campus flags flew at half-staff, and we shared a simple message of solidarity and peace with our followers and with the community of Roseburg.

Connection to your industry

Imagine another oil spill off the coast of Louisiana: Cities, local governments, food industries and ecosystems are wiped out.

Although it isn’t Chevron’s spill, what responsibility does that company have for contributing to the online conversation? What good can it do, without using the event as a competitive advantage or vacuous advertising ploy?

It’s a tough, important conversation to have with your executives. Tempting as it might be to jump in with a tweet of shared sympathy, you must approach any calamity with utmost sensitivity.

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Connection to your customers

Perhaps a soldier comes home from a combat zone and is unable to access crucial mental health services. This veteran is very ill and acts out violently in his or her community. The story makes the news, and USAA Bank considers whether to weigh in on this sensitive online conversation.

There is no “right” or “wrong” in these instances, but I would argue that it is absolutely appropriate for USAA to express its nonpartisan “thoughts and prayers” with the victims and the larger community affected. USAA is a pillar brand within the veterans community, and such a tragic event would intimately and uniquely affect its customers.

When it’s about shared values

REI asks its customers to “opt outside.” When a national park is under siege or a local town is battling over environmental policy, REI could reasonably opt in to that online conversation.

Would it, as a company, be wise or think it appropriate to engage in political discourse? Perhaps not. Could and should it offer messages of advocacy and encouragement concerning the issues that mirror its company values and the values its customers hold dear? Absolutely.

When you can make it even a little bit better

Working at a teaching hospital in Portland at the time of the Sandy Hook shooting taught me a lot about how to “add value” to online conversations appropriately.

We knew, from colleagues who were parents, that they felt anxiety about picking their kids up from school that day: “My daughter will hear about this on the radio on our way home. What will I tell her? How will I make sure she feels safe?”

We reached out to the mental health team at our children’s hospital, which put together a blog post called, “How to talk to your kids about tragedy and trauma.” It became an important and widely shared resource for the moms and dads across our social media channels.

So what?

There are instances when your organization should speak up, times when you’d let down your fans and followers if you didn’t acknowledge a significant event or publicly share this hurt.

When it doesn’t concern you, though—when the tragedy is outside your purview, has little or nothing to do with your brand values or your customers’ day-to-day experience with your organization—keep your “thoughts and prayers” to yourself. They can do more harm than good.

A final word for social media managers

Consider yourself a steward of your communities in hard times. You must get out in front of challenging communication situations.

Even before the shock and sadness have worn off for you and your teammates, you should draft an internal email asking fellow communicators to pause prescheduled content and hold back on sales pitches or inappropriate ad copy that could come off as callous or clueless.

Ask them not to use the event’s trending hashtag. Ask them to revisit their campaign images and outreach timing. Ask them to go dark, because that is how your organization shows real leadership and true empathy in times of collective hurt.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn. Connect with Jessica on Twitter @JessColumbo and at www.MedEdDigital.com.

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