When I was little (okay, pretty much from ages 5-17…) I had a recurring run in with the parental law, so to speak. I always wanted the last word. More often than not, getting the last word came at a price. I knew there would be repercussions, but the temptation was just too strong. And so I jumped, mouth first, into the proverbial fire time and time again. Last week I watched a lot of brands follow in the footsteps of my 5-year-old self. They rose up on the anniversary of 9/11 to get a word in, to seize the moment, to chime in on tragedy. I’m not talking about the stories of horribly misguided advertising. I’m talking about the brands, however well intentioned, that felt it necessary to say anything at all. The butter brand, the laundry detergent, the car dealership vowing they will “never forget.”

There is no question that social media has become a critical conduit for disseminating information in times of crisis. It could even be argued that social plays a valuable role in bringing the nation together in the midst of our most difficult moments, allowing people to process and grieve as a collective community. For marketers, however, the wild card remains the appropriate role of brands in the crisis conversation.

There are people who will argue that brands are people, too. I argue that brands are brands. Brands are comprised of people—individuals who each experienced their own form of loss that day as our lives, country and world as we knew it, were suddenly divided into Act 1 and Act 2.

Though much of the sentiment expressed by brands across social seemed genuine, their actions left me with an unsettling feeling. Wedged between quirky photos of cat memes and 10% limited-time offers, many brands were daring to distill one of the most life-altering days in American history down to 140-character blips and a trending hashtag.

Tragedy is not a commodity or a social currency. It’s not something to leverage, tap into or harness in the name of ROI. It’s not a “like” generator or something that makes your brand more relevant to your consumer. What I want brands to know is that it’s okay to take a step back sometimes. It’s okay to take a time out. Tragedies aren’t a time for self-promotion or proving a point. They’re a time for people.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. It’s all about context. Was it appropriate for American Airlines to share a post on Facebook reflecting on 9/11? Of course. Was it in good taste for marathons around the country to express their sympathies about the Boston Marathon bombings via Twitter? Absolutely.

So how do you know? When is it appropriate for brands to take to social—and when is it better to stay respectfully silent? Here are a few guideposts for assessing if, when and how to respond in a time of national tragedy:

• Is this a conversation space you’d typically participate in? In times of crisis, it’s especially important to ask whether your contribution as a brand is really adding value to the conversation. Do we need our paper towels or cereal of choice to chime in with condolences on Twitter? Probably not. In the midst of a crisis, try not to let the good sense of any normal day get swept up and carried away in the emotional flurry of the moment. Give yourself (and your employees) permission and time to grieve on a personal, human level, then evaluate whether this is a conversation space your brand would normally participate in. If the answer is no, perhaps the better plan of action is to step back and let those who own that space on a day-to-day basis take the lead.

• Take a time out from your regularly scheduled content. Whether or not you decide it is appropriate for your brand to comment on a tragedy, in times of crisis it is typically not appropriate to carry on business as usual. Few things bring on the cringe factor like an ill-timed, pre-scheduled tweet. Give people the space and time they need to talk it out and catch their breath. Your brand doesn’t have to be right in there with them to stand in solidarity beside them.

• Educate your community manager and employees on your brand’s social policy and crisis communication plan. Shortly after the Aurora theater massacre, CelebBoutique.com took the #aurora trending topic as an opportunity to promote its Kim Kardashian-inspired Aurora dress. (See tweet here.) Two weeks ago Kenneth Cole was raked over the coals after making light of the situation in Syria. (See tweet here.) Last week Esquire found itself in hot water after an unfortunate 9/11-related technology glitch prompted a decidedly unapologetic Twitter response from the brand. (See tweet here.) Your brand reputation rests in the hands of the people you put in place behind the technology. Be sure your brand has savvy, attentive social managers on the other end of your digital channels and that s/he feels well versed on your crisis and communication policies. A good social manager is worth their weight in gold. A “not-so-good” social manager is a surefire way to find your brand cast in an extremely negative, extremely public spotlight.

In times of crisis the nation is often searching for answers most brands cannot meaningfully address. What many of them fail to realize is that silence is a response. Often it’s the best response. Know when to use your voice. Know when to use your silence. Your brand will be better for it.



This post first appeared on BrainsOnFire.com