SocialSocial Tragic-ology: How Brands Learn to Be Part of Real News

Social Tragic-ology: How Brands Learn to Be Part of Real News

In the wake of Monday's Boston Marathon bombings, it's apparent that we need to continue the conversation about how people and brands communicate during times of tragedy and crisis. Here are some social dos and don'ts to help prepare for a tragedy.

The phones didn’t work but social media did. In what is starting to become the new “normal” of tragedy, this week’s Boston Marathon bombings unfolded first on social media.

According to a recent study, 70 percent get most of their news from friends and family on Facebook and 36 percent get most of their news links from friends and family on Twitter, with more of the Twitter crowd using a smartphone.

Some brands chose to go silent. Some updated their cover image within an hour of the news breaking. Many organizations replaced scheduled content with acknowledgements of the news.


“It was the least we could do,” said Christie Doss, Taigan’s social media manager.

And then Bethany Hamilton, a pro surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack, sent a message, showing true synergy with the victims, by offering a place to connect with those who have lost limbs:


We Interrupt This Regularly Scheduled Program for…

The concept of brands becoming and acting more like editorial publishers is becoming more evident, as organizations opted to do what the media is doing, focusing on what is actually happening real time in the news.

But not too long after the blasts in Boston, there was a blast of a different sort on Facebook from social media thought leader Peter Shankman in reference to a tweet from David Armano, managing director of Edelman Digital. Armano was reminding brands to turn off auto-tweets due to the Boston events.


The Masses are Still Learning

In the wake of Monday’s Boston Marathon bombing, it became more apparent that we need to continue the conversation about how people and brands should communicate during times of tragedy and crisis.

Contrary to what the small and robust community of social media marketing professionals believe, the masses, which includes a large majority of brands and businesses are still learning basic functionality of social media platforms.

You Can’t Schedule Life, or Social Media

While scheduling tools are helpful, social media isn’t something you can set and forget. These are communities of people who interact in real-time.

If you’re lucky enough to have a community grow up around you as a brand, you should be just as plugged in as they are in order to strengthen your relationships and sustain your reputation.

Brands Still Need to be Reminded

“I have a lot of respect for Shankman, but based on the fresh stream of blissfully unaware brand and personal Facebook posts and tweets, many organizations hadn’t seen the news or when they did had not remembered that they had scheduled content, or content in their ad queues to reassign for a more appropriate time,” according to Lisa Grimm, director of PR and emerging media at space150, who also contributed to the writing of this post. “It is especially important and our duty, as those who have experience in the field, to be helpful as opposed to snarky during these times.” 

Education and Strategy is Paramount

Let’s face it, social media isn’t always in the hands of accredited public relations professionals with years of crisis management experience on their resume.

Does your community manager know the answers to these questions? Chances are if they don’t then neither does the organization:

  • Do we comment when there is a natural disaster or national tragedy? If so, what does that sound like?
  • Cease all scheduled or planned content for X period of time.
  • Check ad schedule and pull content promotion or campaigns for X amount of time.

“It is clear that proper education and strategy is lacking from many social presence online. Anyone operating social channels should understand fundamental crisis communication skills,” Grimm added.

Start sketching a plan or revise the one you have; make sure to include how your social team should operate when something tragic occurs.

Don’t (EVER) Leverage Tragic News as a Way to Promote Your Content

This Epicurious Twitter feed used the Boston Marathon bombings as a way to promote recipe content on its popular recipe site. #Fail.


The tweets ended up being deleted. The brand’s community manager apologized and Epicurious made a statement: “Our tweets this morning were, frankly, insensitive. Our deepest, sincerest apologies.”

This is what can happen on social media. All of a sudden you are now the story.

Don’t let this be you. If you’re going to be in the conversation, keep it on topic.

“I think it’s awesome that they apologized and I get that we all make mistakes, but this should be an indicator that this account manager needs to learn a few nuances of communication,” Grimm said.

Check Your Sources (Even When it Isn’t a Tragedy)

Brands are learning to become news content publishers and getting bruised and beat up along the way. The ones who will succeed will follow journalism and communications best practices regardless of the topic by doing routine editorial fact checking and confirming sources.

The last thing you want to do is perpetuate misinformation

The social media world continues to spin and brands will continue to figure out the right formula for the social PR newsfeed.


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