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Navigating Social Media Marketing in Troubled Times

Elizabeth Palermo, BusinessNewsDaily Contributor
Updated Dec 13, 2021

What did your business tweet in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings? What did you post to Facebook?

Whether you chose to send a heartfelt message to your business’ social media followers or ride out the week in silence, chances are you were a little unsure of how to proceed in the midst of such a tragedy.

Unfortunately, there’s no book of etiquette on how to handle social media marketing when the headlines turn horrific. There are, however, several schools of thought on how businesses should use social media to react to tragic events. [Read related article: Your Customers Love a Good Story. Tell One]

BusinessNewsDaily recently spoke with several public relations experts about the do’s and don’ts of social media marketing in the days following a national tragedy like this month’s Boston bombings.

If you don’t have anything nice to say …

Some experts believe that if you can’t find the right words to say after tragedy strikes, it’s best not to say anything at all.

“You may decide to just say nothing for a day or two or whatever time seems reasonable given the nature of the event,” said Marsha Friedman, CEO of EMSI Public Relations.

“Sometimes, saying nothing at all speaks volumes,” Friedman said.

Mum is never the word

But not all the experts agree on keeping quiet. Chris Dessi, founder and CEO of social media management company Silverback Social, said that silence is never the right response to a tragic piece of news.

“The faster you can respond to anything in any direction, the better,” Dessi told BusinessNewsDaily.

Beyond being just another marketing tool, sites like Facebook and Twitter provide an outlet for popular sentiment in the wake of tragic events, Dessi said.

“People expect a brand to be listening and expect a brand to be reacting as news is happening.”

Don’t get caught off guard

In order to react swiftly in the wake of major events, Dessi recommends having a social media strategy at the ready.

“There should be an internal process in place to interact with social media on highly sensitive issues as they’re breaking,” Dessi said.

The first step in establishing this “chain of command” is knowing what your brand would say in the event of tragedy.

“Step out of the marketing voice,” he said. “Be a megaphone from the core of the brand.”

Finding your brand’s inner voice means knowing what words and phrases you use often and understanding what is deemed acceptable and not acceptable in your specific social media circles, Dessi said.

Once a business has cultivated a plan for creating appropriate responses, it needs to have a process in place that dictates who approves sensitive social media messages before they are posted.

Dessi suggested that this heightened awareness and sensitivity is what modern consumers expect from the businesses they follow online.

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.

“Never use a national tragedy as an opportunity to sell your products or services,” said Eric Richard, representative of Appointment-Plus, a digital software company that integrates with major social media networks.

“It’s not only in bad taste, but could have far-reaching consequences among your customers and social media followers.”

Take, for example, American Apparel’s notorious “Hurricane Sandy Sale,” which Friedman cites in her article as one such callous marketing gimmick gone awry.

Targeting customers in the northeast, the brand’s late October email blast advertised a 20 percent off sale for those “bored during the storm.” Thousands of hurricane victims who had just lost their homes — or at the very least, their electricity — were angry about the marketing scheme.

And many of those angry customers took to Twitter to vent their frustration. Some even threatened to boycott the company forever.

To avoid a similar fate, Friedman recommends taking a look at what other businesses and brands are saying on social media sites — and how users are reacting — before posting your own message.

Check your calendar

The only thing worse than committing a marketing faux pas in the wake of a tragic event is letting your social media management site make one for you.

If you use sites like HootSuite or CoTweet to schedule automated posts, Friedman recommends turning them off immediately.

“If people don’t find them insensitive and uncaring or silly, they’ll likely conclude your messages come from a robot — not a real person — which is just as bad,” she said. 

Richard agreed with Friedman’s anti-automation message.

“The last thing a business wants is a posted message or tweet deemed offensive or insensitive,” Richard said. “It’s easy to lose track of scheduled messages, so be sure you properly manage these and know what’s going out and when.”

How can you help?

The only thing businesses should be offering customers in the wake of a tragedy is a helping hand, Friedman said.

Whether the misfortune you’re responding to is a violent act or a natural disaster, you might be able to use your business’ social media pages to help victims. Consider dispensing updated information about police alerts or evacuation routes to your followers.

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