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Should brands take to social media to respond to national tragedies?

twitter bird No doubt...this is a heavy topic. With yesterday's Boston Marathon bombings occurring on the heels of December's Newtown school shootings, it seems as though we've barely had time to catch our breath as a nation before being rocked and blindsided by yet another senseless national tragedy.

There is no doubt in my mind that social media plays an essential role in information dissemination in times of crisis. I could even make a case for it playing a role in bringing the nation together, helping people process and deal with  grief as a collective community. For me, however, the one wild card in the crisis conversation remains the role of brands.

In the wake of yesterday's tragedy, I saw way too many brands take to Facebook and Twitter to issue a response. However heartfelt the sentiment, most of their efforts came off feeling more like a push to get in their two cents and  score some "likes" in the process. In times of crisis the nation is searching for answers that no brand can meaningfully address. What many brands fail to realize is that silence is a response. For brands, it's often it's the best response.

Here are a few other points to think about if your brand is considering using social media to chime in on the crisis conversation...

  • 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 laundry soap or butter of choice to chime in with condolences on Twitter? Probably not. Should companies take to Instagram to publicly declare their sadness? Not so much. In the midst of a crisis, try not to get swept up in the flurry of the moment. Give yourself permission and time to grieve on a personal, human level, then ask yourself whether this is a conversation space your brand would otherwise participate in. If the answer is no, perhaps the best 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. Take a beat. 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. Be sure your brand has a savvy, attentive community manager on the other end of your social channels and that s/he feels well-versed on your brand's communication policy. A good social manager is worth their weight in gold. A "not-so-good" social manager and you may find your brand in hot water, cast in an extremely negative, extremely public spotlight. Shortly after the Aurora theater massacre, took the #aurora trending topic as an opportunity to promote its Kim Kardashian-inspired Aurora dress. See the tweet here. As you can imagine, it didn't go over too well.

Ultimately, there is no formula or one-size-fits-all model for determining whether or not your brand should use social channels to chime in on national tragedies. My feeling is that unless your brand is directly linked to the affected industry, conversational space or community, silence remains the timeless, respectful option.