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Navigating Social Media After a Disaster

Kiely Kuligowski
Kiely Kuligowski

According to experts, here's how to respond in the wake of a tragedy.

In 2017, in the wake of the attacks on London bridge that left seven dead and 21 critically injured, Londoners rallied together on Twitter using the hashtag #SofaForLondon, offering their sofas, floors and spare rooms to stranded residents.

And during Hurricane Harvey, when 911 calls were backlogged, hashtags like #sosHarvey were used to call for civilian helpers, and accounts like @HarveyRescue compiled the addresses and names of those who were stranded. Following a catastrophic earthquake in Nepal in 2015, Facebook activated its Safety Check feature to allow users to mark themselves safe and notify loved ones.

In the wake of countless other tragedies in the last decade, the world has turned to social media to grieve, show support and provide what help they can.

As a business owner, it can be difficult to know if, what or how to post following a calamity. On one hand, you want to express genuine sympathy for those affected by the tragedy. On the other hand, you don't want to be viewed as yet another company joining the chorus for the sake of improving one's corporate image.

We spoke with public relations and communications experts, as well as a psychologist, about the do's and don'ts of responding on social media to a disaster. Below are some guidelines that can help.

What should you say?

Some experts believe that if you can't find the right words to say after tragedy strikes, or if your company or community is not involved, it's best not to say anything at all.

"If the company isn't directly involved, and the disaster is being covered by every media outlet, the best thing to do [may be] not to post anything," said Brian McDonough, associate at Evergreen Partners PR & Crisis Communication.

The No.1 reason not to post on your social media platforms is if it is in any way disingenuous or a ploy to market your business – for example, Cinnabon's tweet after the death of Carrie Fisher in 2016.

While you may want to acknowledge the gravity of the situation to your followers, the truth is that silence – like turning off your social media for 24 hours – can say more than a half-hearted response.

"Don't feel compelled to respond," said McDonough. "To be received well, the company's message must be genuinely empathetic and free of any political or promotional statements."

Use your best judgment.

Staying silent may not be an option for you or for your business, in which case you should carefully plan how you will approach your social media use the day of and the days following the event.

"If [your] company is directly involved or has the resources to help, then you absolutely need to post something," McDonough said. "It provides the public with some sense of comfort to know the company is aware of [the situation] and [is] responding to [it]."

Consider the nature of the disaster or tragedy and your business's relationship to it. Next, evaluate what services or resources your company can provide to help. If you're not in a position to provide resources, keep your posts simple, empathetic and to the point.

Because there is often a proliferation of rumor and fake news surrounding disasters or tragic events, fact-check anything you share or retweet on social media to ensure it is accurate and confirmed by emergency personnel or officials.

Be prepared.

To react swiftly in the wake of major events, it's helpful to have a basic strategy outlined.

"Every situation is different, and addressing the nuances of the tragedy is key to a successful communication strategy," said McDonough.

Your strategy should include whether or not your company posts about tragic events (or outlines cases where it is or isn't appropriate) and if or how long you will suspend posting. Further, your strategy should provide specific guidelines for what you do post after a traumatic event.

"There should be an internal process in place [on how] to interact with social media on highly sensitive issues as they're breaking," said Chris Dessi, vice president of sales at PerformLine Inc.

Have a plan for what you will say and how you will say it while avoiding corporate language or promotional tones.

"Step out of the marketing voice," Dessi said. "Be a megaphone from the core of the brand."

Make sure that whatever you post aligns with your company's values and image, and that it is simple and empathetic.

Speak from the heart.

One thing that all the experts we spoke to agreed upon is the need for businesses to choose their words carefully when posting to social media after a major news event.

"Take time to really think about the message you want to put out," said Massiel Bradberry, owner of Living Better Lives Counseling. "Don't rush to post something just to be the first one. This is an opportunity to connect with your clientele at a time of vulnerability."

You should also be prepared – and willing – to support your words with action.

"If you're going to talk the talk, walk the walk," said Maria Vorovich, co-founder of GoodQues. "Showing support is great if your consumers or brand are directly impacted. If your company is moved by the event and wants to raise awareness, [it] should expect to do more than just post on social media."

This doesn't mean you need to do anything that is costly or dramatic. You can create a small fundraiser or offer products for free or at a discount to those affected. Another option is volunteering time or services.

"Consumers notice [brands that post] within the week of a hurricane," said Vorovich.

Check your calendar.

If you use sites like Hootsuite to schedule your social media posts, turn them off at least  the day the calamity occurred. Carefully review your scheduled posts for the next few days to ensure there is nothing that could be perceived as offensive or callous.

Further, keeping your automated post schedule can make your company appear ignorant or out of touch, said McDonough.

"If every TV channel is covering a disaster, and your company is posting sale advertisements, or if a company tweets out condolences and 10 minutes later posts information about a weekend sale, that's a problem," he said. "In the eyes of the public, the company is trying to act like it's business as usual when it's not."

This perceived callousness can lead to damage for your company, both financial and to your reputation, so tread carefully, and err on the side of caution when resuming scheduled posts.

How can you help?

The only thing businesses should offer in the wake of a tragedy is a helping hand, said Marsha Friedman, president and founder of News & Experts.

Review what help your company can provide, and then provide it to the best of your ability.

"After a trauma, people need to feel safe and supported, so any social media posts should keep that in mind," said Aimee Daramus, Psy.D, a licensed clinical psychologist at Urban Balance. "[Businesses] can post messages of support and solidarity or useful tips, such as hotlines, shelters, blocked roads or flooded areas. In other words, be an active, helpful part of the community."

Daramus said social media managers should always ask themselves if what they are about to post helps people feel safe and supported, and to use that as a guide for your social media posts.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Palermo. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Image Credit: Shutterstock/
Kiely Kuligowski
Kiely Kuligowski
Business News Daily Staff
Kiely Kuligowski is a and Business News Daily writer and has written more than 200 B2B-related articles on topics designed to help small businesses market and grow their companies. Kiely spent hundreds of hours researching, analyzing and writing about the best marketing services for small businesses, including email marketing and text message marketing software. Additionally, Kiely writes on topics that help small business owners and entrepreneurs boost their social media engagement on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.