How Businesses Should Approach Social Media During Times of Disaster

Opinion: Not everyone is looking to be consoled by a random brand

Not the best time to post about a sale Karl Spencer/iStock

In the past few months, we have witnessed a series of devastating tragedies unfold in the U.S. From Hurricane Harvey in Texas to Hurricane Irma in south Florida to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to the mass shooting in Las Vegas, it’s been one disaster after another. And in the wake of a tragedy, people want reassurance that their loved ones are safe.

Enter social media.

When phone calls no longer go through and text messages aren’t answered, loved ones will instinctively turn to social media for help. It’s become the go-to channel for users since Hurricane Sandy demonstrated the power of social media during a disaster. Through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms, users get firsthand information from people on the ground and become part of the unfolding events.

For instance, just moments after the Las Vegas shooting, when country music star Jason Aldean was performing, the hashtag #PrayforVegas went live on Twitter. The support that followed was mind-blowing.

Likewise, after the Texas and Puerto Rico hurricanes, businesses and individuals started donating and mobilizing support using social media. Even mobile messenger applications such as e-Chat—which bypass vulnerable servers and government systems—were utilized to the fullest, proving useful during statewide downtime.

With growing popularity of social media as a tool for support and comfort, businesses need to get more involved. But this involvement must be done with tact.

As a business, how should you use social media in the wake of a tragedy? Here’s how.

Acknowledge that it’s no longer business as usual

“If your brand is still posting sales deals on social media when all TV channels are documenting ongoing rescue missions, something is wrong,” says Deep Patel, founder of Owl Metrics, an Instagram analytics company. “Whether the posts are automated or otherwise, in the eyes of the consumer, you’re just another business that doesn’t care about humanity. And this could lead to huge losses.”

To counter this, ensure that all automated posts are put on hold and refrain from publishing any material related to the tragedy until you have all the facts. One simple mistake could lead to a public-relations disaster, like the DiGiorno’s #whyistayed debacle of 2014. You don’t want to rub your loyal customers the wrong way.

Join the conversation, but don’t overstep

Not everyone is looking to be consoled by a random brand in the wake of a disaster. In fact, only statements from brands directly involved are immediately welcome. But this doesn’t mean you should stay away from the conversation entirely.

As a business, you could reach out to the victims and their loved ones through:

  • Posting a short message of comfort: It’s sufficient to say, “Our hearts are with you,” and include the relevant hashtag. Refrain from using images of your products or linking the tragedy to what you’re offering. Doing so might come across as insensitive.
  • Avoid making speculations: After a tragedy, people go online searching for information to try to make sense of the event. They want to know all of the details, and they want to abate their fears. Speculation would cause unnecessary turmoil for your followers. If you must talk about what’s happened, stick to the facts.

Become part of the story

Posting comforting messages when you have the ability to offer direct assistance could be viewed as an empty gesture. Consumers could then detach themselves from your business, causing decreased sales.

Instead, immerse yourself in the unfolding story. Here are a few ways you can do that.

  • Mobilize people to offer aid: Disasters lead to great losses. People become homeless, lack money to pay hospital bills and generally fall into a state of misery. Use this as an opportunity to strengthen your brand by showing you care. Use social media to mobilize people for donations, volunteering and rebuilding. When users ask, “What can I do?” your business can provide a platform for them to act.
  • Reach out directly to the victims: As another way of becoming part of the story, you can offer your services to the disaster victims. For instance, if you’re in the catering business, you could provide food to the recently homeless. If you practice law, you could offer legal services to victims looking for justice. And if your business is in construction, you could offer to rebuild destroyed homes.

If you’re directly involved, release a legally correct statement

When your business is directly involved in a tragedy, people will want to hear from you. They will be looking for explanations and consolation. Whatever you publish on social media will be scrutinized.

“An appropriately crafted statement could ensure that people see humane side of your business and help you minimize the backlash,” says Los Angeles-based lawyer Ambrosio E. Rodriguez. “To ensure that the statement you release is not controversial, consult a competent lawyer with experience in such matters. By getting legal counsel, you’ll be protecting your brand from what is to come.”

Natural disasters, like the recent four hurricanes, are projected to get worse as climate change continues to become a global concern. And you can never predict where the next mass shooting will happen.

These few tips may not cover every issue your business may face during crises, but they can act as a guide for your best social media practices at times of tragedies.

James Jorner is a content strategist and marketer at Effective Inbound Marketing. His company specializes in online branding and digital marketing for businesses.