There was no shortage of social media activity during the recent tragic events in Boston. Your Facebook and Twitter streams were overloaded with content referencing the minute-by-minute unfolding events. In fact, much of it would not make sense out of context.
There is also no shortage of social media marketing brand managers who have chimed in on best practices during a crisis. Stacy Wescoe writes: “I had to stop myself and say, ‘No, people don't need to see that now,' and leave my Facebook page empty for the rest of the day.” John Loomer warns that “Brand messaging can often come off as insincere during these times.” Pauline Magnusson states, “In a moment of tragedy, however, that's not what our audience continues to need.”
And on and on.
Most everyone gives the same advice, and in fact they even offer the same suggestion as number one their list. Steven Shattuck calls it “Immediately Disable Scheduled Tweets, Posts and Emails.”
Why? Because as BlogHer's Elisa Camahort writes:
We don't want to be the organization blithely talking about children's crafts, while our community waits to find out how many children have been hurt or lost in a school shooting. We don't want to be the organization promoting a great deal on athletic gear while our community waits to hear from their friends and relatives at the marathon.
In trying to understand these reactions, I came across comments from Mary Beth Quirk at The Consumerist. She makes the following point:
Business and awful, upsetting events that result in the loss of human life just do not mix.
We are all affected by a major crisis. We are all emotional. The everyday humdrum of business activity just seems so much less important when we are dealing with something as horrific as terrorism, natural disasters, or industrial accidents.
I can understand the desire to stop working. When President Kennedy was assassinated (on a Friday), the Chicago Tribune reports that on Monday, virtually all offices and most businesses were closed, and most schools and colleges suspended classes.
But in the case of the bombings and the search for the suspects, I can find no record of anyone ceasing or slowing business operations outside of Boston (except for security measures). Everyone continued doing research and development, running production, going on sales calls, conducting financial analysis, writing reports, servicing customers, and delivering products.
Every aspect of business kept running except for one. We're supposed to stop our marketing campaigns—especially our social media marketing campaigns—during a crisis.
Why is marketing different than other business functions? If “business and upsetting events don't mix” then why don't we slow everything down? Why do so many brand managers think they should stop working when the world is focused on a major crisis? Shouldn't plant managers, sales managers, accounting managers and everyone else do the same?
Marketers are not more or less human than everyone else. If we decide to shut down our social media messaging, we are either saying that everyone should be focusing on the tragedy or we are saying that we are not essential to our businesses.
If it's the former, going silent on social media implies that we think of less of people in other professions who are still doing their jobs instead of paying attention to what's going on.
If it's the latter, we're saying that marketing is not as important as other divisions in our companies. In fact, I think as marketers we tend to have a rather limited view of our own value. This became evident as I tried to discuss the issue online:
— Professor Tiki Ohana (@tikikitchen) April 17, 2013
So here's my own list of best practices during a social media crisis. You will probably disagree. That's what comments are for:
Second, review your entire marketing strategy for elements which could be insensitive. A store display that says your products are “DA BOMB” is just as offensive as a tweet with the same content. Continue to monitor events as they unfold so you can make adjustments as needed. Do not simply cancel all scheduled messages, unless your company is also closing all business operations.
Third, review the relation of your business and your industry to the current tragedy. If you manufacture athletic equipment, the marathon bombing might inspire you to replace some of your promotional messages with efforts to raise awareness around charities you support that are tied to the crisis. Or, you may want to find a way to help directly. (For example: what Anheuser-Busch did in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.)
Fourth, be careful about expressing your sentiment. Everyone knows that everyone is thinking about the victims of the current tragedy. Unless you have something to add beyond “Our hearts go out to…” you probably should not say anything as a brand. You certainly don't to become Epicurious or Kenneth Cole. And you should likely only explain what your company is doing in response if that information impacts your customers and advocates.
For example, if you're making a financial donation, don't talk about it during the crisis. But if your employees are going to give blood, let people know that there will be a delay in returning calls and emails.
Your social media crisis response is hurting your profession. If you do what the experts say and shut down all automated messaging, you're either implying that marketers are the only people sensitive enough to stop working and focus on what's important, or you're implying that marketing is not as essential as other business functions. Both choices reflect poorly on the profession.
Let's make marketing a first class citizen. Let's work with other professionals in other disciplines to react appropriately, plan intelligently, and behave humanely.
Feel free to disagree below.