Social Media for Tragedies

As the recent tragic events at the Boston Marathon were discovered on Twitter by a colleague, and then unfolded before me, it was a sharp reminder of the need for compassion, tact and etiquette when it comes to Social Media.  During tragic times, people are looking for information, contact from loved ones, where to get help, or how other people can help.  What people don’t want to see are insensitive Facebook posts or Tweets, either scheduled or manually posted, according to other agendas.

Like other similar events of the past, brand marketers and individuals were guilty of either conscious or unconscious acts of insensitivity.  The unconscious posts are typically either scheduled earlier in day, triggered to be spread out over time.  The conscious ones are posted by marketers attempting to take advantage of the event, sometimes complete with event hashtags, to increase visibility of their brand.  The conscious variety create Social hating for that brand, the most famous for the Boston event was Epicurious, the publisher of food and recipe content.

The Epicurious tweets were later apologized for, but after the damage was already inflicted.  Individuals will have already formed an opinion for that brand or person, and it will be a long road to rebuild that trust.  Epicurious should have learned from the past mistakes of others, take for instance the Gap’s tweets during Hurricane Sandy.

The Gap, knowing that folks were monitoring the hashtag #Sandy, took advantage of this and tried increase their business because of it.  Nasty stuff, and clearly the wrong way to engage during tragic times.

So what is the best approach to take?  That is a tough question, and one there may be no one answer.  I think you must put yourself in the position of someone directly affected by the tragedy, and gauge how they might respond if you were standing next to them and spoke your tweet.  At the very least, or if in doubt, brands should simply be silent rather than inserting foot-in-mouth.  Perhaps you could offer your condolences, but why clog Facebook or Twitter feeds posts from car dealerships who have no connection to the tragedy, simultaneously apologizing?

For the scheduled tweets or posts, that is a much simpler, but often overlooked fix.  You simply turn the, off as quickly as you can.  Or perhaps as Gary Vaynerchuk advises, don’t use them ever!

I don’t know if I would go as far as Gary advises, and never use scheduled posts, but I think you get his message.  Effective Social Media needs to feel as personal as possible, and scheduled posts rarely hit that mark.  If you are late in discovering a national or local tragedy, and scheduled posts have already gone out, simply stop the posts and issue a quick and sincere apology.  People are human, and they will understand that not everyone gets news at the same time, and something can always slip out.

So when can you resume your posting and tweets as normal?  Again, I’m not sure there is any single answer.  Once more I would advise to put yourself in the position of someone who has been affected, and get a feel for how long to wait.  Perhaps you slowly ramp back to your business-as-usual activity.  If you or your business is located near the tragedy, that may mean waiting a bit longer.

Of all the scientific and metric-driven activities we do, Social Media during and after a tragedy takes patience, tact, and compassion.  Your opportunities can wait, your audience will still be out there, have empathy, relax, and count your blessings.

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