Using Social Media in Times of Tragedy

In light of recent tragic events there have been many articles about what is or isn’t appropriate online behavior during these times. While I usually don’t aim to be just another article regurgitating a popular topic, I think this one is worth addressing. Like most things social media related, there is no standard rule to tell you how to handle these situations.

I think it’s more or less understood that brands should at the minimum put out a sympathetic post on all platforms offering condolences and concern. These posts should be comforting and yet still professional. Remember, these posts are a reflection of your brand, not your personal opinion.

The best advice I can give you is this: Be sensitive to your audience.

If your audience is primarily a European based demographic and a tragedy happens in the U.S., you should acknowledge the event but you could probably continue with posting as usual and not offend anyone in general. However, if the event occurred in Europe, your European demographic may take offense to continued posts. So consider your audience and determine what action you think is acceptable for these situations.

Should you always stop all posts?

I think the most common issue that arises is whether or not posting should continue as normal. Should you stop all posts or should you let them continue with just additional tragedy related posts mixed in? Or should you go “dark” and not post at all? I read a lot of articles in the last week that say you should stop all non-tragedy related posts.

This is where again, I think you need to evaluate your situation and your audience.

Personally, I don’t like to see regular, business-as-usual posts on social media in the wake of a tragedy. And as such, I halt all future posts (including going into my management systems to halt all scheduled posts).

Here’s the problem, the average social media user doesn’t understand scheduled posts. They actually think you’re sitting at a computer all day typing these posts. So when they see something pop up following a tragic event, they think you’re being insensitive because you’re still at your desk asking them questions about what weekend plans they have.

I understand that when a tragic event of national (or these days, international) proportion occurs, your first thought may not be to log on to your content management system and deactivate your posts. You’re probably glued to the TV or radio or internet trying to find out what happened. While this is true and a natural reaction, you very may well get backlash for continuing your scheduled posts.

Is it acceptable to continue with posting as normal?

I also read a couple articles that talked about the reasons why you should continue to post as usual. For some people, the best way to deal with tragedy is to continue with business as usual. They gave this example: Did you stop working after you heard the news? Did you leave your job and go home? Did you cancel business meetings? Most likely you did not. You stayed at work and got through the rest of the day.

Another article talked about marketing in general. It asked: Did the commercials stop running on your TV programs? Obviously they didn’t. Business carried on “as normal” for these types of things.

Here’s my primary concern with these arguments, social media isn’t like these things. Yes, you carried on at work but most of your conversations (even business meetings) likely started with conversations about the tragedy. These are live interactions. The problem with social media is that just because you posted a condolence post 3 hours ago doesn’t mean that everyone saw it prior to your posting photos of your team celebrating yesterday’s milestone.

If you are going to continue posting as usual, I recommend that you post something more than once that indicates that you are grieving for the situation but that in order to maintain a sense of normalcy in the face of tragedy, you will continue with business as usual and that your posting will continue as scheduled. By addressing the concerns of your audience and providing them with a valid reason for your decisions, you will receive much less backlash.

Should you post about the tragic event?

This is an issue for both your business environment and your platform. If your business is related to or known for sharing breaking news or information then it likely makes sense for you to stay on top of the events across your social media platforms. If the tragedy is in some way connected to your company (locally or industry-related), again it may make sense for you to post additional posts about the ongoing developments.

Be careful not to come across as judgmental and don’t be too quick to post without confirming details from multiple sources.

Otherwise, the occasional condolence or concern related post is sufficient in terms of relating to the event at hand.

What should you avoid posting?

While there is still plenty of gray area about what is acceptable, there are some very clear things not to do:

  • Don’t jump to conclusions about information that is not confirmed
  • Don’t take an aggressive approach or let anger dictate your posts
  • Don’t be too quick to post – stop and think about the circumstances
  • Don’t try to connect the tragedy to your brand in ANY exploitative way

Make it part of your Social Media Strategy.

The decisions you make about how to handle social media during a tragedy should be included in your Social Media Strategy and Policy. You should have clearly defined guidelines for how your social media manager will proceed under these circumstances.

You should know how you want to react to tragic events. Whether you halt posts or not, there should be a clear definition. You should also determine what is defined as a catastrophic event. Bad things happen every day all over the world and if we stopped posting for every one of these events, we’d never be online.

You should also have clearly defined statements of how to address your sympathetic posts. Are you comfortable saying “Our thoughts and prayers…” or do you want to avoid religious connotations in your posts. You can also mention in your post that you will (or will not) stop all posts for the remainder of the day. Creating a basic template post can help make it easier to respond when emotions and fears are running high following a crisis.

You should also determine how long to withhold posting if you choose do so. Is the remainder of the current business day sufficient? Or will you halt posts on the next business day as well? When will you come back online and how will you address your audience when you do come back online?

You should also determine how quickly you want to respond to tragic events. If the event happens outside of traditional business hours, will you address it at that time or wait until the next business day. If you decide you want to respond immediately, ensure that you have someone assigned to handle that responsibility.

A little extra preparation now will provide immeasurable value when the next tragedy strikes.

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5 thoughts on “Using Social Media in Times of Tragedy

  1. I struggled with this a last week too and had some followers alert me to my posts, objecting to the business as usual approach. Being in Australia I was a little in front (or is that behind) my predominantly American audience.

    This is a very sensible take on the correct social media protocol for when tragedies occur. The nature of the platform does mean more sensitivity. I’ll be better equipped next time, thank you.

    • It’s unfortunate that some took the time to object to your posts – this seems almost paradoxical. If they’re so upset about the tragedy, should they really have the time to criticize your posts? Not to mention, the idea is that we come together and “bond” through strength during these times of chaos – openly criticizing other people is not (in my opinion) benefiting anyone.
      But I am glad that you found some help from this post and hopefully your audience will appreciate this next time there is a tragedy.

  2. I also struggled with these decisions, through contemplation, I ultimately opted to come completely off topic, acknowledge the tragedy that people were facing, and promote the philosophy of non-violence. Thank you for sharing these very thoughtful tips. Sincerely obliged. Metta, Duane

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