Thoughts and Prayers: Social Media, Tragedy, and the Brand

I distinctly remember the day my mother stopped watching the news.

“It’s all bad news,” she said. “It’s sad. I don’t need to be sad.”

Things haven’t changed much in that regard. Turn on any news program at any time of day, and odds are you’ll be inundated with headlines that hurt your heart. The age of the internet has amplified the depressing din ten fold. Tweets and retweets and trends and hashtags assault the senses on a rapid fire basis. Even my stubborn mother can’t hide from the news anymore.

This relentless news churn has made things difficult for businesses operating in a digital world, particularly on social media. We’re living in an era where brands are expected to operate like people — interacting in a relatable, human fashion. When the hashtag du jour is #tbt, it’s no big deal. But when the hashtag trending comes with a body count, things get tricky.

On one hand, most of those hashtags have very little to do with most brands’ unique selling proposition, so there’s not much of a link to be made. They also tend to be associated with topics that are highly politicized, which can make participating in the growing conversation a risky endeavor. On the other hand, those trending social discussions are often incredibly significant in the lives of those who brands are trying to reach, and tweeting about how Jack Daniels is your #mcm after a mass shooting just seems crass.

My mother isn’t the only one who can’t hide from the news anymore.

So what’s a brand to do? It’s a complex challenge for marketers, because there are no good, concrete answers to that question. Take a stand and you risk trouble. Join the conversation the wrong way and you risk trouble. Stay silent and you risk trouble. Landmines abound. But since standing still is not an option, here are some ways to navigate the shifting terrain.

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Be aware.

Marketing automation is a glorious thing. It’s the only way a lot of us get anything done these days. But it can also be your undoing when tragedy strikes.

Take, for example, Guy Kawasaki in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. The social media guru had his tweets scheduled ahead of time, which didn’t sit well with a rattled Twitter populous. He was slammed by marketing pros and plebeians alike for not turning off his autotweets, along with dozens of other companies who made the same mistake.

Though Kawasaki tried to defend his actions (tried being the operative word here), in times like those, turning off the marketing spigot on social is just good etiquette. Twitter, in particular, can become a venue for collective mourning during tragedies, and those autotweets can feel like you’re peddling your wares at a funeral.

Sometimes the climate is not dictated by a single event, but a pileup. Today, for instance, #DallasPoliceShooting is trending. It was undoubtedly a tragic loss of life, but it’s also part of a larger news cycle this week involving Alton Sterling and Philando Castille and #BlackLivesMatter and gun rights. In that context, the Dallas shooting carries even more weight.

Always look at context before you consider opening (or shutting) your mouth.

Know your audience.

Awareness is only the first step. While paying attention to what’s happening in the news can help you avoid stepping in it, turning off your marketing in response to every sad or outrageous event would mean you’d never do any marketing at all. So when do you go quiet? And for how long do you stay quiet? Or should you be speaking up?

As is the case with most communication related quandaries, the answers to these questions depend in large part on your audience and answers to even more questions. Think about them before you speak or don’t speak. So something happens. Are they aware of it? Are they talking about it? Are they impacted by it? Are they angry, hurting? Even if you don’t see it, could all of that be happening offline?

The last thing you want to do is center yourself while people are grieving. As mommy blogger Rebecca Cuneo Keenan put it:

If you are not sure if a given tragedy is important enough to cancel a Twitter party (and I do understand that a lot of work and planning go into organinzing a successful one) or to suspend your auto tweets, then just look at your own feed. Take the temperature of your network because, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if it feels wrong to you. What matters is that it feels wrong to others.

THAT’s what is going to make you look like an asshole.

It’s important to think about the needs of your audience, as well. What kind of relationship do you have with them? What do they expect from you in that relationship? What do they want from you in that relationship? Do you let them down in silence? Would it be inappropriate to speak on this subject? You’ve got to be able to answer these questions if you’re going to get it right.

Know your brand.

You’re probably tired of hearing this, but think about your brand like you would a person. Every person has their own distinct personality, with passions and concerns and quirks and habits. So does your brand.

“When the attack happened in France, a lot of brands spoke out. Some were political in their comments, others kept it simple,” notes Startup Foundry marketing manager Nick Bowersox. “I think that comes from the DNA of the brand. TOMS and Timex are going to participate in different conversations in different ways.”

When things go sideways in the news cycle, come back to that brand DNA. Think about how a person with that sort of identity would react to this news, and how that reaction might look in different settings. If you’re speaking in your brand’s voice with respect for your audience and an understanding of what you’re talking about, the odds of your message being well received improve dramatically.

There is, of course, a chance that you don’t like the likely commentary of your brand personified. If that’s the case, you’ve got bigger problems than a news cycle to tackle.

Be human.

Whatever you do, do not market off of a tragedy. 

That should go without saying, but people do really dumb things sometimes. Like Epicurious. Guy Kawasaki might have showed poor judgment in continuing his autotweets during the Boston Marathon bombing, but Conde Nast-owned food website was utterly classless.




Don’t do it. No matter how creative you think you’re being, any and all attempts to hock your goods on the back of suffering are going to blow up in your face. And you know what? If you think it’s ok to even try to do so, you deserve everything you get in return.

Here’s a weird thought: instead of pretending your brand is a human being, be a human being while running it. If you look around and people are hurting, don’t do things that could make the hurting worse.

That’s really the bottom line. We can make checklists and exchange tips and tricks and best practices, but at the end of the day, the things that make social media such a powerful tool for marketers also demand a certain level of humility and responsibility from those who use it. There’s bad and good in the world. Decide to be in the latter camp. Especially when people are hurting.

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