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How Should Brands Communicate During Public Tragedy?

The #prayforboston hashtag was prominent in many brands' tweets after the Boston Marathon bombing.

How Should Brands Communicate During Public Tragedy?

As I watched news of the horrible Boston Marathon bombing come through my Twitter feed yesterday, I couldn’t help but feel disgusted by the number of poorly timed marketing messages I saw in the midst of such tragedy. I wondered: Why are these companies not stopping their marketing communications machine, even briefly, out of deference for such a heavy situation? Do the people behind these marketing tweets not care about what’s going on, and do they not realize how trivial their messages are right now?

With social media so prominent in our lives, perhaps the greater question is, “How should brands handle public tragedy?” What’s tactful and appropriate? What should be avoided?

Brands should be careful in how they communicate their marketing during emergencies and disasters

Photo by Brett Neilson via Flickr/Creative Commons

I’ve been writing a lot about social media marketing do’s and don’ts, but am not necessarily writing this post not as my usual advice column. Rather, after reading a Facebook conversation started by Accelawork’s Robby Slaughter in which he asks, “… how do you feel when corporate brands express their sympathy via social media?”, I’m hoping to inspire my fellow marketers and public-relations professionals to give greater consideration to how they communicate with their audience in times of terror and tragedy, and to get your opinion on what works and what doesn’t.

After all, as society becomes more saturated with news via social media, I like to think that we’re getting better at questioning the info we see on our phones and computers rather than taking it at face value and sharing it without skepticism. As more people use their mobile devices to get news and see marketing messages, it’s increasingly important that marketers carefully communicate rather than simply blast messages out, traditional-media style.

First and foremost, this advice from Slingshot SEO’s Steven Shattuck was the best I saw immediately after I heard about the explosions; if you use HootSuite, TweetDeck, or any other tool to schedule tweets or other social media updates, be sure you can pause or cancel your messages at a moment’s notice.

Strangely, the New York Times tweeted this self-promotional “breaking news” at the same time more important breaking news about the suffering in Boston had already been spreading rapidly:

In the midst of all the shocking photos and videos being shared from Boston, local media outlets across the country frantically asked any and every local person who was in Boston to contact them so they could get the scoop. News outlets are brands, after all, and reporters desperately seeking a local connection in the middle of such chaos come off as crass. @TheJennaBee offered this sage advice:

Even though it goes without saying that any caring person’s thoughts and heart is with those who suffer, countless brands expressed their condolences. Some tactfully, with a simple, heartfelt message:

Other brands, like the Indiana Historical Society, wisely let others speak for them while making a subtle connection to what their brand is about:

Indiana Historical Society's Kurt Vonnegut quote after the Boston Marathon

Some companies were a bit less tactful. Was it necessary for Adidas to include the hashtag? Is their comment adding to the conversation, or was it just a way to get their logo in front of those following the news?

(Update: A friend pointed out to me the following: “Don’t forget that Adidas is a sponsor of the marathon and many, many of their logos appeared in the pictures of the blast site … there is a very visible (adidas) banner that was (near) the site of the first blast that was an adidas banner that read ‘all in for Boston.’” So the Adidas tweet above makes more sense in this context. Interesting to note, however, that their Boston Marathon products page has no mention of what happened or ways to help.)

And then we have this tactless tweeting from Epicurious (hat tip to @AllisonLCarter and Unmarketing):

Epicurious social media tweets during the Boston Marathon were unfortunately tactless.

So I ask you: What’s fair for companies to share with their audience during times of tragedy? Should they offer their condolences and leave it at that? How soon should they resume their planned marketing efforts? And what about companies who offer products or services that can help in times of disaster?

Update: Brad Phillips at looks more closely at the Epicurious tweets and their “apology” issued (over and over) after I wrote the above article:

Epicurious Twitter apology after their Boston Marathon bombing tweets

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Tags: best practices, Boston Marathon, communication, Facebook, news, social media marketing, Twitter,

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