Should brands express sympathy in a national crisis?

Of course you shouldn’t try to exploit a disaster to push your product or service, but offering generic condolences to unnamed victims of a tragedy tend to ring hollow, the author asserts.

Recently a story by Katie Humphrey ran in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the angst many people face about tweeting or posting on social networks during a tragedy.

Humphrey interviewed me, as well as friends Lisa Grimm and Karl Pearson-Cater. Largely, the article focused on the decisions people face when posting during a tragic event, such as the Boston Marathon bombing or the Oklahoma tornadoes.

In the wake of these kinds of events, virtually everybody participates in some way. Many simply say, “My sympathies to the victims,” or something similar.

Why say even that?

In the article, I allude to the fact that I don’t share my opinions on two things: politics and religion. These national tragedies are an add-on to that list. It’s not because I don’t feel terrible for the victims, but, as Humphrey quotes me: “It’s not because I don’t care. I don’t feel like I have that much to add.”

That’s the rub for brands, too.

Over the years, a number of brands have been burned for posting and trying to sell during one of these national crises. That heated backlash has prompted brands to take the opposite stance: to publicly show their sympathy.

But why? Do people in Boston really care that Chick-fil-A extends its deepest sympathies? (There are only two Chick-fil-A locations in all of Massachusetts, so it’s not like they employ a whole slew of Bostonians.)

Do consumers care that Macy’s is asking us to stop and take a moment to appreciate those in our lives?

Anyone deeply moved by this uber-generic notion of sympathy from Sony?

Who cares that brands “care”? Isn’t it akin to the corporate news release from the CEO with boilerplate language? Almost like it came from a robot—instead of an actual human being?

On the other hand, look at the engagement numbers on those posts. Pretty solid, right? I’ve seen similar numbers from similar posts from an array of companies. Huge.

So, maybe I’m in the wrong here. Maybe it’s all about results and engagement.

I stick with my viewpoint. I don’t see a compelling reason for brands to participate in these tragedies, even if it is just to say “our sympathies.” Yeah, it shows your brand cares. But when every other brand on the planet is doing it (as well as everyone in your newsfeed), the message kinda gets lost, don’t you think?

What are your thoughts? Should brands be issuing these sympathy posts during national tragedies? Do they make a difference in any way?

A version of this article first appeared on

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