SocialSocial Media Strategy in Times of Tragedy

Social Media Strategy in Times of Tragedy

SEW Contributor, Lisa Buyer, shares the life experience that led to her career in PR and offers tips for people and brands struggling to communicate in a way that is authentic, empathetic and appropriately sensitive in times of tragedy.

Brands seek to engage their fans, friends and followers; some even go so far as to buy fans. They want people to “Like” them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Brands want to socialize, share a laugh, hangout, join a Group and even have a conversation. The strategy of becoming a more social company is clearly working; 87% of people report Liking or friending a brand on Facebook.

When tragedy strikes, as it did one week ago, brands are more often finding themselves in an awkward situation. How can brands act as friends? What does that conversation look like? Can a company be empathetic or consoling… and is it their place to try to be that, or is it exploitation, self-serving and inappropriate?

Do We Really Need to Have this Conversation?

Truthfully, I’d rather not, yet the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut has made me reflective this past week. Across the country, I believe many people have been left confused, heartbroken and even depressed by this terrible event and others like it. As a parent, a neighbour and a human being in general, I’ve been unable to think about much else.

Yet when the unthinkable happens, life must still go on. As much as we wish the world could stop for a moment so we could collect our thoughts, business marches on. My sincere hope, as I write this, is that readers will understand where I’m coming from, which is a place of introspection and trying to deal with what I can and make sense of something that never will. My only hope is that you can take something helpful from my experience, as this tragedy has brought up issues and lessons for me, as a person and a marketer, that I believe can help others.

I didn’t choose to be in crisis management; it chose me when one of my best friends was murdered by a serial killer, who eventually confessed to killing seven others. I was just starting my career in public relations and suddenly found myself, alongside my friend’s family, under the spotlight of a national news story tragically similar to the recent Newtown, Conn. shootings. I understand all too well what those families are going through with what can seem like a circus of media.

I have experienced the pain of having the police confirm the identity of a loved one gone too soon. Yes, it was definitely Tracy’s raped and mutilated body found at her door. What was supposed to be her first day of school at University of Florida was actually her last day with us.

I was the last person to talk to my friend and will spend the rest of my life wondering why Danny Rollings randomly chose his beautiful and innocent victims. They just happened to be in his path of mental illness and destruction. Ever been to two funerals on the same day? I know what that’s like too, since Rollings also killed Tracy’s roommate, Manny, another high school friend whose heroic efforts nearly saved them both. Almost.

Everywhere we look in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy, people and companies are struggling to somehow express their sympathies without crossing the boundaries that could make their messages appear self-serving or selfish. People are, by nature, skeptical of brand messaging, yet it seems callous and inauthentic not to say anything when you truly feel you have something to say.

Behind businesses are real people and as people, we are all affected. The Newtown school shootings raise questions on just how a brand should interact with fans during a crisis and the unwritten rules of social media etiquette.

How Can Brands Support Audience on Social Media?

According to a study, about 50% percent of consumers think a brand’s Facebook page is more useful than a brand’s website. If a brand really wants have a personal relationship with its audience and be seen as more than just a way to get coupons and giveaways, they need to offer more than promotional content. Brands need to offer resources, meaningful content. The first step is being real and getting personal.

What people will appreciate and remember:

  • XFactor dedicating a song in the opening to victims. The song was “You are not alone.”
  • The Today Show and The New York Times publishing the names of each victim.
  • Saturday Night Live opening with Silent Night from the New York City Children’s Choir.
  • Acknowledgements from brands like this one.

Crowdfunded ad

  • A moment of silence. Your fans may not have gotten over the tragedy and you don’t want to make the mistake of offending anyone.

Do the equivalent of traditional signs of acknowledgement via social media:

  • Sending a card
  • Putting a flag at half mast
  • Taking out an ad in remembrance
  • Starting a fundraiser
  • Laying flowers at the makeshift memorial

Your brand needs to be real during a community tragedy:

  • Be human. Acknowledge what is happening.

Sensitive Facebook Update from Taigan

  • Be real. Take off the automated posts. Get real in real time when tragedy strikes.
  • Be credible. Report and share news, but confirm sources and facts first.

Obama Addresses Suffering of Newtown

  • Be Caring. Consider sensitive subject matter. If your brand is part of the tragedy or in a related industry, take a close look at what you are reporting.
  • Be considerate. Take a few days off from your normal editorial calendar. Think about it, is anyone even paying attention to what you are promoting? “I typically recommend to cease posting branded content for the day, however always remain active in the community (regular moderation responsibilities),” Social Media and PR Specialist Lisa Grimm said in a heartfelt blog post she published the day of the Connecticut shooting.
  • Be alert. Have a meeting with the communications team and put someone in charge of watching real-time news so you are aware of issues–good or bad–that can impact your community.
  • Have a clean slate. Consider taking down recent postings that might be offensive to current events.

Sensitive Facebook Update from Showebox

  • Look at the most recent posts. Is it appropriate in light of the recent news? I would have deleted these posts or posted something acknowledging the relative of the shootings so that such content was not the most recent post for the first 5 days.

Twitter Objection to NRA Facebook post


An American Apparel ad for a “Hurricane Sandy Sale” sparked backlash from the Twittersphere. American Apparel is just one of several companies that committed online marketing faux pas in times of crisis. Last year, fashion designer Kenneth Cole’s Twitter account made light of the protests in Egypt by tweeting, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.”

American Apparel Marketing Faux Pas

When brands are looking to give away something via social media and beyond, promoting the gift of hope and signs to cope can be the best message in times of tragedy.

Why Brands Shouldn’t Ignore Tragedy

Sadly, I know what it’s like to deal with the media surrounding a national murder story and be the target for interviews. I know what it’s like to:

  • Testify in the sentencing murder trial and come face to face with my friend’s murderer
  • Be part of the briefing of what happens to someone who must live on death row
  • Be at Starke prison when Danny Rollings was finally executed
  • Finally feel a sense of peace, but always have the scars
  • Be part of a community that must rise up and gather the strength to get through the absolute unfathomable.

The reason the collective conscience is so affected by tragic events is precisely because so many, if not all, of us, have experienced tragedy in our own lives. We can’t help but be empathetic. We want to stop the suffering of those affected, because we know how damaging it really is. This includes business owners and management, as well. Even if your customers were not directly affected, they certainly empathize with those who were. They may feel helpless, desolate, or even suffer survivor’s guilt.

It was more than 20 years ago that evil struck in my own life. We only had the traditional news to report and support. Things are much different today, with social media reporting and sharing the news fast and furious.

The day that evil struck the small town of Newtown and rocked the entire nation back on our heels, social media delivered the news from more than just major news outlets. Your brand in social media is now part of “the media” and your response (or lack thereof) will be noted by your fans and community.

Do you have tips or strategies to help people/brands communicate during times of tragedy? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


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