How Should Brands Respond to Tragedy on Social Media?

This post was co-written by the author and his wife, Stephanie Coffee

Horrific events that shock and captivate entire nations, superseding all other news—tragedies like the Newtown shooting and last week’s Boston Marathon terror attack—are thankfully rare. And yet, as we all know, social media and the 24/7 cable news cycle have intensified the public’s focus on these national crises and their aftermaths.

Now that the Boston case has been resolved with amazing speed by state and local authorities, we can examine the media response to last week’s events from a PR perspective.

As communications professionals, we know that the public doesn’t just demand (accurate) news as it breaks in times of crisis. They also value reassurances and statements of support from sources they follow on social media—sources that include their favorite brands.

At least one brand has already demonstrated the dangers of an inept response. So what should public entities and the people who manage their accounts do?

What NOT to do: 

  • Don’t tie the event into a promotionEpicurious (which is usually a very good food site) gave us a perfect case study on Monday with its tone-deaf promotional tweet encouraging followers to buy specific Boston-themed products. We won’t go into why it was a terrible idea because that should be painfully obvious. As another example, who can forget Kenneth Cole’s infamous Egypt uprising PR Fail?
  • Don’t send pitches if the event is ongoing—period: We know you still have business to attend to, but pitch emails with intros like “I know we’re all focused on this horrible event, but we still have clients/products to promote” are off-putting and, frankly, offensive. There should be other things you can work on during the relatively brief period when everyone’s attention is devoted to the event at hand. In extreme cases like Newtown and Boston, we would even be so bold as to say you should wait until the following day (at the very least) to send pitches. Very few people will read them anyway.
  • Don’t make any specific statements about what happened: This one is a bit of a no-brainer, because discussing details about the victims, perpetrators, or anyone else involved will read as inappropriate. Remember that your brand is an objective third party whose only goal is to state your support for those affected and provide help in whatever ways you can. Let news outlets report the news. (Well, maybe not Fox 4…)

What to do:

  • Be aware in the moment: Anyone watching Twitter/Facebook feeds on Monday understood that the news from Boston overwhelmed every other topic. As developments and (often inaccurate) speculation poured in, no one was thinking about brand promotions except the promoters themselves. Keeping up with the story as it unfolds can help you avoid pulling an Aurora.

Which leads to our next point…

  • Put ALL automated messages on pause: Of course you have a job to do. But these are extraordinary circumstances, and chances are your promotions will either vanish into the ether or inspire irritation and even backlash from the public. Please don’t listen to Guy Kawasaki—no one is “too popular” to turn off auto-tweets. To be safe, you should try to put your promotions on hold if at all possible and follow the news closely to determine when it’s appropriate to begin sending them again.
  • If you do release a brand statement, make the message as broad and positive as possible: Many, many brands posted tweets or status updates consisting of some variation on the lines “our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Boston” or “our hearts are with Boston.” Our first thoughts after the bombing were certainly not “what do Coca-Cola and eBay think?”, but millions of people will see these messages, which offer comfort while reminding followers that there are real-life people operating these social media feeds.

  • Link to relevant resources if they are available: In our humble opinion, this is the most important step to take, especially in the days and weeks after the event. A statement of support on its own is nice, but any canny PR pro studying trending topics on Twitter should be able to find some sort of link that he/she can share as a way for followers to help out. For example, #BostonHelp and #HandsOverHearts (inspired by the runners of the London Marathon) began trending right after the attack—and most used the tag when linking to Red Cross and Salvation Army-style resources or The One Fund, a charity set up by the Mayor of Boston and the Governor of Massachusetts (which was amazingly created in a mere seven hours).

What to do after the event:

  • Link to the best relevant resources: Elaborating on the point made above, the hours and days after the news breaks are the best time to follow up on your statements of support. Fans will forget all about your thoughts and prayers, but by linking to resources you can make a real difference.
  • Make a tailored statement if your brand has ties to the event: The best example may be this tweet from Nike Running, an account with a very specific connection to the marathon itself. As you can see, the message was very well-received.
  • Create a related charity drive: If you want to take it a step further and truly get your brand involved, then you can propose starting your own campaign or webpage. The key point, however (and it is essential): this campaign must be legitimate, and it must not directly benefit your brand lest the public see it as a self-interested act. If, for example, Coca-Cola followed its tweet with an announcement that it would donate 5% of proceeds on a given day to a reputable charity organization, that would be a big PR win. Here’s another example: Running USA, a distance runners’ community, set up a “Helping Boston” page on its site.

PR pros: what do we think of this list? Can we think of suggestions to add or examples of brands that did a particularly good job addressing the issue on social media last week?

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.