Social media tragedy response guidelines

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Michelle asked via Twitter:

In recent months, many national tragedies have occurred. In the wake of these tragedies, what’s the appropriate social media behavior? Is it OK to tweet/post in the immediate aftermath? If so, what is appropriate? Your regularly scheduled posts? Or posts related to the tragedy? Or is it better not to post at all?

This is a very complicated question. Most of the advice written about handling major/national issues is too simplistic. The United States has a mass shooting of some kind virtually every day:

Mass Shootings per Day, USA 2016.png

Data source: Mass Shooting Tracker

If we were to stop our social postings for each, we’d literally never be able to post normally on social media again. I understand the impulse, the emotional need many people have to give voice to their grief. In times of tragedy, we seek connection to each other, to make sense of the senseless and the terrible. When we grieve, we also take umbrage at those who don’t share our connection, who we perceive as ignoring our pain.

Rather than a knee-jerk policy of “stop the presses” or an endless stream of “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims” posts, we as marketers and human beings have to balance our humanity with our fiduciary responsibility to our companies.

With that perspective in mind, when an incident of any kind occurs, we should consider five factors to guide our response:

  • Proximity
  • Magnitude
  • Impact to your audience
  • Alignment with our brand
  • Judgement


If an incident occurs in our hometown, obviously be sure our employees, loved ones, etc. are safe and accounted for. Social media should be the least of our concerns. Once we’ve established there’s no threat or harm to our immediate community, we can consider more mundane issues.

The more proximate an incident to either our company or our market, the more we should consider interrupting our normal operations. For example, if you worked in financial services, even if you are based in Boston, an incident in New York City is likely to impact your customers and audience.


An incident’s magnitude also dictates our level of response; the greater the overall magnitude, the more likely we should interrupt operations. While we’ve all heard of and mourn major shootings like Dallas, Orlando, Newtown, and Columbine, you probably didn’t know about the other daily mass shootings in the US, as per the graph above.

Assuming equal proximity, the magnitude of an event should also govern our response plan.

Audience Impact

Not all people respond the same way to incidents, major or minor. Our core audience, the people we do business with and serve, should dictate a significant portion of our response based on their response. We must monitor our audience to determine how impacted they are by any given incident.

For example, suppose you had a Twitter list of your top 100 customers. An incident occurred and none of those top 100 customers talked about the incident at all. Should you interrupt operations? Probably not. Your audience isn’t relaying the impact to you. Conversely, if 75 of your top 100 customers all began tweeting about an incident and how horrified they are, that’s a good indicator to interrupt normal operations.

Brand Alignment

If an incident is impactful to your brand, consider interrupting normal operations. For example, if an incident occurs at one of your business locations, involves one of your employees or customers, or your brand is in any way involved, interrupt operations and activate your crisis communications plan.


Use sound human judgement. If you have to ask, "will this offend our audience”, the answer is probably yes. If you have to ask, “should we stop normal marketing operations”, the answer is probably yes.

There’s little harm in erring on the side of caution in marketing. No one at a responsible company has ever lost their job for choosing to remain silent or acknowledging the human cost of an incident rather than continuing normal business operations amidst tragedy.

The One Rule Not To Break

The one thing you most certainly should NOT do is attempt to leverage a tragedy for marketing benefit. Hijacking other peoples’ sorrow to sell more stuff is a sure path to public, well-deserved condemnation. Of all the guidelines and factors in this post, this is the only hard-and-fast rule: don’t market sorrow.

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