Your Social Media Crisis Response Is Hurting Your Profession

Crying Man
Copyright Flickr user Craig Sunter

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.

Crying Man

© Flickr user Craig Sunter

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?

© Flickr user khawkins04

© Flickr user khawkins04

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:

So here’s my own list of best practices during a social media crisis. You will probably disagree. That’s what comments are for:

First, talk with your management to find out of the company is shutting down or reducing operations – If they are planning to close early, send staff home, or decrease activity, your marketing should be reduced accordingly. And you will be responsible for communicating this decision to the public as well.

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.

10 Comments

  1. 1

    Hi Robby –

    I so appreciate you quoting me in your piece, and I think your examination of the complex issues involved in changing one’s marketing message in a moment of national tragedy is worthy.

    That said – I’m going to disagree with you.

    You write, “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.”

    I think that’s a false dualism – those aren’t the only two possible messages being communicated by a choice to suspend an automated marketing campaign during a time of tragedy.

    For myself, it’s a recognition that among my audience, there are potentially people in many different stages of grief. And others may not be grieving at all. But because of the complexity of human reactions to tragedy and loss, especially on a large scale, I believe the only ethical response is to attempt not to add to someone’s grief with an automated marketing message that could be glib, inflammatory, or otherwise hurtful to someone in grief – especially knowing there’s a good chance that a *lot* of my audience is in grief.

    It’s not so much that I believe I can direct my audience where there focus should be. It’s that I’m hopeful they are people with full, rich lives where people matter more than profits. I hope my business isn’t the most important thing in their world, and I choose to tailor my marketing message accordingly in the wake of tragedy.

    For myself and my partner, while we shut down our automated messages, we didn’t stop communicating with our audience. We knew that we needed to be especially hands-on with listening to our audience. Rather than trying to quickly swap out automated messages. It’s simply easier to pause an automated sequence of “conversation starters” as social media content often is and post a few simple heartfelt updates, as well as focusing on quality engagement. For us, this was our chosen response to what our audience showed a need for.

    Our first update after the bombing occurred was a simple graphic of a runner with a caption expressing our prayers for the community of Boston and the runners of the marathon. With over 80,000 views (over 20K in just a few hours), I’d argue that it was a marketing message that resonated with our audience in a much more appropriate way than simply letting our automated messages continue would have.

    For us, the value of authenticity as a brand is very important, not only in moments of tragedy, but always. As a brand, it is important to match our actions with who we say we are, to use Seth Godin’s definition of authenticity. We are people who genuinely care about our customers – not just as sources of profit, but as real people with real feelings, some of which are quite complex in moments of tragedy and grief. Being authentic for us includes making sure our marketing message responds to this in a sensitive manner during times of national tragedy and grief.

    In some ways – you might even say that suspending an automatic marketing message in such a moment comes out of a respect for the tremendous power of the marketing function, but with power comes responsibility to use it wisely.

    Thanks for starting a dialogue – it’s a topic too important to ignore, I think.

    • 2

      Thanks for the comments, Pauline

      My point is that suspending automated messages during a crisis because “there are more important things to worry about” seems inconsistent with the fact that we don’t suspend everything else our business is doing. Why is continuing to market more insensitive than continuing to sell, continuing to expect people to arrive at work on time, or continuing to be open to the public?

      I’m not opposed at all to brands being authentic. I think there are cases in which we need to turn our national attention away from all aspects of business toward tragedy. That’s why I referenced the loss of President Kennedy.

      My concern is that the inconsistency between the behavior of marketers and the behavior of other disciplines in business. I think that inconsistency harms the profession because it can make marketers seem non-essential or make them seem overly-sensitive.

      I want marketing to get more respect. Reducing public marketing activity at a time when most other disciplines are continuing to operate at full speed like it will reinforce marketing as a second class citizen.

      • 3

        I’ll continue to disagree. You write, “I want marketing to get more respect. Reducing public marketing activity at a time when most other disciplines are continuing to operate at full speed like it will reinforce marketing as a second class citizen.”

        Honestly, I believe that the reverse is true. That conducting business as usual marketing activity at a time of national tragedy will decrease respect for marketers – that it will reinforce a public perception of marketing as so focused on the almighty dollar that they don’t care about the true needs and emotions of their customers. In my business, the response from my customers has upheld my opinion. And honestly – being a small business, we did suspend other operations. And having been an HR manager in a previous life, I’d suspect that there were a lot of other business functions that weren’t happening on Monday afternoon. I have no numbers to prove the case either way, but any smart leader in business would have taken stock of what his or her employees needed at the time, and that may well have included letting some folks go home early if possible. Mission is important, but without people (customers or employees), the mission doesn’t happen.

        What is the purpose of marketing? To prove its own worth or to encourage a customer to make a favorable decision with respect to the brand. If it’s the former, then sure, Tweet on. If the latter, I strongly think a pause to get the pulse of the market and respond appropriately might be more effective. You can argue all you want for the value of marketing as an isolated entity. I’ll argue just as passionately that marketing is not an end but a means to an end. And I don’t see that as a lack of respect for the profession in the least.

        As an example – in my car, gasoline is a means to an end. I respect it greatly, but by itself, without the mechanism of the car, it does nothing. And without it, my car won’t run. An exclusive focus on the quality of my gasoline without attention paid to the other systems in my car won’t make my car run more efficiently.

        • 4

          To me, the brand that stops touting its products but keeps making them, the coffee shop chain that stops tweeting but keeps selling coffee—those are the brands for which I lose some respect. It’s as if they were getting away with marketing most of the time, but feel they need to turn down the volume during a tragedy.

          I don’t think marketing is an isolated entity. I think it (should be) intimately connected with the culture of a company and its relationship to its customers and advocates.

          That’s why I want to see brands make decisions that are holistic, rather than isolated to just the marketing department. I think doing so will increase respect for marketing, because the company will all be on the same page instead of just looking like it’s posturing to maximize public opinion.

  2. 6

    Robby,

    I have to agree with Pauline. While I think it’s important to be conscious of what our brands are doing on auto-pilot (read = scheduled), at the same time we have to remember to keep things in context.

    Not all businesses are going to be impacted the same way with a national tragedy. A public response is not required of every brand, but it does depend on the individual business/market. If you’re a childrens’ clothing manufacturer or a fireworks company, you might have a different social media response to the events in Boston versus a hosting company or auto repair place. Likewise, the auto repair place may want to watch their public message in the event of a tragedy involving a car bomb.

    As far as a slow down of social media marketing nationwide for brands, I always think that’s a prudent decision. Of course, that has to be weighed against just how much marketing a given brand does. My company, for example, does a small amount of social media marketing right now, so suspending our digital push until after the key events of a tragedy are over would kill any outreach to the public that we do, since 100% of our message is produced online.

    The long and short of it is that it’s a fine line to walk. In reality, a smart business owner will know the prudent actions to take regarding their message to the public in times of crisis. And ultimately, it’s the public that will decide whether or not the actions taken by that brand were in good taste.

    • 7

      Thanks for the comments, John.

      It is a fine line to walk. I am more concerned about the respect for the marketing profession than I am in discussing what’s best for a certain business. I do think that a business should coordinate it’s efforts. If they are going silent online, they should probably look at closing their doors in other departments as well.

      You’re right that the public will decide whether or not the actions taken by a brand are in good taste. But we already know that the public does not trust brands much to begin with.

      One of the best ways to demonstrate trust is to be consistent. A company that closed for a few hours to give blood and updated their online messaging to do so would show consistency. A company that halts all marketing but stays open otherwise demonstrates that their messaging isn’t really central to their culture after all.

      • 8

        Thanks for the reply Robby.

        I agree that a business should coordinate its efforts, however, just because a business suspends promotion of it’s products for a finite period of time, it doesn’t necessarily alleviate the company of it’s responsibilities in other areas. If I were to suspend marketing due to a national tragedy, it doesn’t mean I don’t still have existing clients to keep happy. I need to service those customers I have taken on a responsibility to keep happy.

        This is probably why consumers don’t trust brands to begin with. I also think it has a LOT to do with the fact that most marketing campaigns really aren’t focused on the consumer’s need. The way I see it, it’s about finding a psychological hook to get consumers to part with their money. I’ve positioned my business differently. In order to gain consumers trust, you need to get to know them on a personal level. The proverbial mom-and-pop businesses are a prime example of this. They know how to treat customers like human beings, as opposed to seeing them as a dollar sign that just walked through the door – and that is ultimately what disillusions customers when they start shopping at a big box store vs. the small business down the street. What happens? The ‘little guy’ goes out of business and all that’s left is the big box store and we all know what the result is: less competition for the big chains and they start raising prices in reverse proportion to their customer service. It becomes about selling and making money and not about actually servicing the customer.

        Thus, I digress. The point is about consistency and I simply don’t feel that because one area of the company may be impacted, that means we need to completely stop other business functions. Marketing is outbound, but when you have existing obligations to fulfill, it’s important to understand that those obligations must be met.

        • 9

          Agreed, John. Though as a small business owner and former HR manager, I’m also okay with evaluating my employees’ and/or contractors’ needs in such a moment and allowing others to take a break or go home in light of such an unusual occurrence if need be. Certainly we have obligations to our customers. But – the people who allow me to meet my mission are every bit as important to me as my customers are.

        • 10

          I agree with this comment.

          “I also think it has a LOT to do with the fact that most marketing campaigns really aren’t focused on the consumer’s need”

          This is why I equate so much of marketing to snake oil cars, or at the very least going back to the days of PT Barnum. Marketing does not focus on consumer needs. Instead it tells the consumer “You need this.” Not happy? “You need Brand-X!” It’s a very old model. The words change, the presentation methods change, but in the end the message is still the same. “You need this.” When in truth, I don’t need that.

          The brand that I am going to trust, is the brand that shows initiative in social responsibility over its own method – and they are few. I am not saying that brands need to shut down it’s messaging. Just slow down the automated stuff, and allow for more human control. However, as you mentioned before sometimes that is a lot easier..

          Robby, you do bring up a lot of good points. I’ don’t think business needs to come to a grinding halt, but marketing needs to know there is a time and place, and your message may be stronger by how you respond to a tragedy rather than maintaining the frequency. Marketing for marketing’s sake appears shortsighted, and antithetical to civic responsibility. To make marketing a first class citizen, it must conform to the ideas of civic duty and responsibility. That means putting the community as a whole first, and just allow people to actively seek you out when they need it. Be mindful of the human experience that is going on, and take a back seat to more important matters.

          However, like John and Pauline, I think one of the main differences between marketing (especially social media marketing) is that stores staying open fulfill a need, even if it’s just a place to congregate.

          I guess my issue is that, especially with automated tweets, we need to consider the consumers needs. Because if we don’t then it is all nothing by snake oil at that point.

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