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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 MrMediaTraining.com 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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Lauren Littlefield April 16th, 2013

I saw Shattuck’s tweet yesterday and found myself nodding in agreement. I was saddened to see the number of brands still marketing themselves at a time when I believe they were better suited to stay quiet. I chose not to tweet from our organization’s account. I thought the most heartfelt tweets were from other running entities (500 Festival, Carmel Marathon, Runners World magazine, etc…) Perhaps it’s appropriate to respond when you have something in common with the tragedy – not sharing for the sake of sharing.

Tristan Schmid April 16th, 2013

Terrific point, @twitter-16220180:disqus; I agree completely. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

robbyslaughter April 17th, 2013

I don’t think brands should stop marketing, unless the event is of magnitude that commerce is stopped as well. Instead, I think brands should go about their business online, just as stores continue to remain open, sales people continue to close deals, and shippers continue to deliver products.

Furthermore, when a tragic case appears to be one of malicious intent, doing anything that draws attention to the attackers (even remaining silent) provides them with the attention they are seeking.

Tristan Schmid April 17th, 2013

You make a good point about stores staying open, shippers shipping, etc. during most tragic events, @robbyslaughter:disqus. Obviously, if everyone stopped what they’re doing for even a few hours, the economy would be negatively impacted.

There is a significant difference, however, between face-to-face physical operations like storefronts/shipping and digital interactions. Unlike major physical operations (and mass-media advertising on TV, radio, and newspaper), social media marketing can be canceled, paused, or modified on the fly.

Especially during times of disaster, a platform like Twitter is one of the world’s biggest news services, and going about business as usual on it – when it’s so easy to quickly modify your message – is a bit heartless. For most brands, pausing their tweets for a few hours or issuing heartfelt sentiments as seen in a few of the examples will not impact their bottom line negatively. Rather, it shows empathy – something that likely will bring in more cash in the long run, anyway (or so my idealist heart tells me.)

Re: acts of terror, I don’t think McDonald’s pausing their tweets is drawing attention to the attackers, when you consider that virtually every news outlet online was sharing photos and videos of the bloodshed. That kind of mass messaging is more likely what terrorists are after.

robbyslaughter April 17th, 2013

I think it’s just as easy to close a store as it is to pause your Twitter messages. You put up a handwritten sign that says “closed out of respect for _____” and lock the door. That’s it. And it’s pretty easy to tell your employees to go home and mourn.

The reason we don’t do that is because it’s so expensive.

Really, the idea that we should turn off routine social media during a tragedy cheapens the role of social media. Anything can be turned off, and most anything can be turned off near-instantly.

I think the fact that people consider going silent on social media when no other part of the economy goes silent is proof that we don’t really take social media seriously yet. We just think of it as a fun, surface element of an overall communications strategy—so much so that when something big happens, we stop playing around with it.

Tristan Schmid April 17th, 2013

I’d argue that thoughtfully modifying one’s messaging based on what’s happening in the real world to real people actually ADDS value and increases the impact of social media. It shows that there are real people who feel empathy behind the company, and they care more about just making money.

Churning out routine, scheduled marketing messages promoting your products or service without acknowledging the situation shows a lack of respect and a disconnect from the real world and people’s lives.

I’d imagine there was more value gained from the Coke and McDonald’s examples above than there would have been in regular, business-as-usual tweets they probably had scheduled. And I’d also imagine that Epicurious is suffering a bigger negative impact from their ignorant tweets than if they would’ve just kept their digital mouths shut.

This is a great conversation, @robbyslaughter:disqus – thank you for adding to it!

robbyslaughter April 17th, 2013

If churning out marketing messages and promoting products shows a lack of respect and disconnect from the real world, doesn’t doing anything you do with regard to commerce on a routine basis show a lack of respect and disconnect from the real world?

And what about non-social media marketing? If you’re sending out a postcard campaign, why not wait a week? If you’re penning a hand written thank you letter, should you be referencing the current tragedy? Why not skip your monthly professional meetings or cancel your webinars?

If we want social media to be a legitimate part of business, then why do we treat it as as if it’s special? Everything else we do in marketing and beyond is business-as-usual.

Allison Carter April 17th, 2013

Additionally, many news stations stop running commercials in the wake of a tragedy to provide better coverage. You didn’t see commercials for DAYS after 9/11, and many events were cancelled, especially anything seen as frivolous (sporting events, theater, etc.). I agree that temporarily pausing marketing messages is a sign of respect and keeps the stream uncluttered. Besides, it’s screaming into the void–while you might go to the mall to get your mind off a tragedy, being told to do so is just crass.

Tristan Schmid April 17th, 2013

Great post, @RavenArienne:disqus! I’m glad Courtney mentions empathy, something lacking far too often in marketing and business in general.

And this is great, too: “If your Twitter stream is filled with nothing but news of this event, that’s a good sign to stop what you’re doing (including canceling all scheduled posts for the day) and take some time to process.”

Tristan Schmid April 17th, 2013

Your last sentence is a terrific summary, Allison.

RavenCourtney April 17th, 2013

Could it be a difference between the “push” aspect of social media marketing as compared to the “pull” of a bricks-and-mortar store? If someone wants to buy my product or service during a time of tragedy, that’s their decision and I certainly won’t stop them. But it’s MY (or a brand’s) decision whether or not to actively continue pushing a marketing message during a tragedy. I would guess that’s why many of us halted our messaging.

robbyslaughter April 17th, 2013

So should we expect advertisers to pull from radio and TV?

Should we expect postcard campaigns to be halted?

Should we expect window displays and banners to be pulled down?

These all take about as much work as pausing your social media campaign, but these things didn’t happen.

Professor Tiki Ohana April 17th, 2013

Thanks. This is an excellent point.

RavenCourtney April 17th, 2013

Radio and TV: I’m not sure to what extent it happened, but I do believe some radio and TV ads were pulled and I saw lots of calls for wider ad pulls. Will hunt down a link for that.

Postcards: Probably not; I don’t know much about direct mail but imagine it would be tough to make changes within the window we’re talking about.

Window displays: Maybe if they had explosions or bomb imagery.

Basically, my party line as a marketer and a human during times like these is “Do what I can to be respectful and kind, or get out of the way for a while.”

That may not be what everyone else does, and that’s cool. But pausing social media campaigns literally takes one button push for many tools, so why not err on the side of caution/reverence?

robbyslaughter April 17th, 2013

I don’t think we can argue that it’s significantly more difficult to pull a sign from a window than it is to pause a scheduled campaign. So the effort is about the same.

What’s interesting is that you only advise that if they have insensitive imagery. But at the same time, we seem to think that ALL social media messaging is insensitive, whether it is mention bombs or explosions. (Yeah, if you had a scheduled post: “Our running shoes are DA BOMB!” that should probably be reworded.)

Finally, when you write “get out of the way for a while”—does that mean the rest of the time, we ARE in the way? Do we really think of our work in marketing as inconvenient?

I’m just befuddled that marketing is the first to go.

robbyslaughter April 17th, 2013

A good point, Allison. During 9/11, EVERYTHING that wasn’t news got shut down. Schools and businesses closed. People stopped working, stopped going to class.

My question is why is marketing the first thing on the chopping block when we have a tragedy? Why don’t we stop doing everything in proportion?

To me this shows that marketing is not as respected a discipline. It is seen as a “frivolous” part of the economy.

Susan Young April 17th, 2013

I agree with Robby Slaughter. Brands shouldn’t stop marketing. If we did, where would we draw the line — every time something happens? If a company has planned a promotional message and it would now seem in poor taste, it should make an effort to delay the message. However, when I see normal tweets and posts during an event such as this, I don’t think negatively of the companies behind them. I just believe they are going about their business. Also, I would not fault a company for not suspending their posts. In many cases, companies are not aware of a tragedy in time to delay posts. After 9/11, all Americans were encouraged to continue to do business as normal — to not shut things down — because that gives the terrorists power that they had an impact on our lives and economy. While I disagree with posts that reference the events to gain visibility, I enjoy seeing the “Praying for Boston” posts from local and national brands. I think it encourages solidarity.

Tristan Schmid April 17th, 2013

Thank you for sharing that, Courtney. I left a comment there.

Much of the debate in this comment thread is more about marketing’s place in the world and how significant it is in the grand scheme of things.

Personally, I held off on sending marketing messages while such heart-wrenching disaster unfolded in Boston because it simply felt wrong to do otherwise, plain and simple.

I wholeheartedly believe that empathy has a place in successful marketing, and is necessary. Without it, how in the world will your messaging connect with anyone?

Tristan Schmid April 17th, 2013

Thanks for sharing your opinion, Susan. I can see how #prayforboston encourages solidarity. I’d argue, though, that pausing the flow of marketing messages – as McDonald’s did – shows solidarity too.

Tristan Schmid April 17th, 2013

Thanks for your note, Dan. Great connection between what WFYI did with their campaign and @RavenCourtney:disqus’s advice.

Myles Bristowe April 18th, 2013

A delicate topic indeed! Thanks!

robbyslaughter April 18th, 2013

I commented too. That post seems like it asks a far more profound question.

Thanks for sharing. And thanks @twitter-15873273:disqus for supporting this discussion.