When Tragic News Strikes, Should Brands Adjust Their Social Media?
How should your content team react — or not react — on social media after a tragedy? Columnist Patrick Armitage shares some insights from BlogMutt CEO Scott Yates.
The recent news cycle has been fraught with tragic events. Given that, we’ve all likely experienced the jarring sensation of seeing social media posts about a tragic news event bookended by seemingly tone-deaf branded content.
After we had an enlightening internal discussion at our company, I wanted to give my colleague and BlogMutt CEO Scott Yates an opportunity to address the awkward balancing act of how brands should react to tragedy on social media, if it all. What follows is his advice — in his own words (and those of experts he’s spoken with) — on how brands should respond in such situations.
And Now To Scott Yates
Paris. Colorado Springs. San Bernardino.
Those three attacks have fractured the warmth and security that the holiday season typically represents.
Millions of people learned about those attacks, and then responded to them, on social media. But right in their social media streams, in addition to the news, came the same unending stream of posts from the brands they follow.
This flow of business posts continuing without a pause has changed a lot, even in just the last year or so. Where previously, startups and big brands alike would go completely dark on social channels so that their message didn’t get interspersed with, for instance, news from Sandy Hook, today the drumbeat of branded posts seems to march on uninterrupted no matter how tragic the news of the day.
Is the uninterrupted flow of “business as usual” social media posts a good thing or a bad thing when tragedy strikes?
The Fault Lies In Society’s Stars?
When the Boston Marathon was bombed in 2013, the companies that kept a stream of social media posts going got “decimated,” remembers PR impresario Peter Shankman. But after the recent spate of news, he says, when companies keep tweeting and posting, they got no rebuke from social media critics.
“It’s very sad to say, and it’s a horrible reflection on humans as a species, but we’ve all become somewhat desensitized to all of this bad news,” Shankman told me by phone from New York City.
One of the new realities is that so much of the feed of content into social channels is no longer a spontaneous expression of ideas, but is instead the pre-programmed content set in motion by the editorial team days or even weeks earlier.
Tools from Hootsuite, HubSpot and nearly all of the others encourage setting content in motion well ahead of time. There’s tons of research about the best times of day to post, so the best practice these days is to write and then schedule a blog post, and at the same time schedule perhaps a dozen social posts for each blog post.
“Really, there should be a big red button that says ‘STOP ALL POSTING’ in all of those tools,” Shankman said.
But a quick review of the most common tools shows there is no such button, that tweets have to be rescheduled one by one. With the sheer volume of tweets coming from even small startups, stopping all tweets could be a tricky proposition.
When To Push The Stop Button?
Of course, even if such a button were to exist, when would you push it? Every death, especially a violent one, is a tragedy for the people close to that person.
Soon, anyone trying to come up with a policy would run into a grim algorithm: Do you stop posting for a shooting based on the death count? The distance away from your office? The country of origin of the shooters?
Because these events seem to be so frequent and the circumstances always differ, it’s impossible to formulate a single answer. One recent study showed there have been more mass shootings than days so far in 2015.
Given that, perhaps the best answer is to keep posting as if nothing happened. A “tragedy” to one person may not even be on the radar of another person, so it’s simply impossible to find the right time to stop.
But for that strategy to work, what’s needed is a series of social media posts every single day that doesn’t seem crass in the face of tragedies that haven’t even happened yet.
“The worst thing you could do is have a tweet that said ‘It would be a tragedy if you missed this sale!’ because you never know what actual tragedy may be just before or after that in a person’s feed,” said Lizelle van Vuuren, a growth marketing expert.
The Newsroom Mentality Can Hurt… And Help
Before becoming a startup founder, I was a journalist who worked in breaking news. In the newsroom, when a big story hit, everyone pitched in.
It didn’t matter if you were the education reporter — if a plane crashed, you would help. The thinking was that nobody really wanted to read about the school board when everyone was talking about the plane crash.
That’s why I personally probably react more strongly than a lot of CEOs to these kinds of news stories. I still feel the call to drop everything.
Of course, there’s not much that I could do as the head of a blog-writing service, so I just want to make sure that we are not in the way, that our social media stream isn’t competing for attention with genuine tragedies from around the globe.
What I’m personally waking up to is that a philosophy of dropping everything is actually a bad idea. Every “consumer” of news is different.
There is no “front page” that everyone looks at. So as much as it pains me personally, I’ve decided to follow the example of bigger brands, and I’ve instructed my staff at BlogMutt to just keep all of our blogging and social media channels open.
There is one takeaway from my newsroom days that does help, however, and that’s the editorial flow process.
In the glory days of newspapers, there were a number of people who looked at every story. With a range of people working in the editorial flow, the dumb mistakes that can creep into copy would get caught before they went into print.
So we are trying to create an editorial flow that has a built-in review process.
The most egregious social media failures have typically been when one person, without support, has posted in haste. With a review process, some time and some scheduling, those kinds of errors can be cut off before they happen.
Blogs A Force For Good?
While what Peter Shankman told me is unquestionably true, that becoming desensitized to mass violence is in itself a shame, it may also be a good thing.
If a gunman’s goal is paralyzing people with fear, perhaps marching forward without fear is a small victory.
I’m not trying to say it’s noble to post a tweet offering 50 percent off your product. I do think, however, that every person in the world is dealing with a set of victories and tragedies that is unique.
An important key to good writing will also help you avoid social media blunders. The key is this: If you recognize the humanity and the individuality of the reader, you’ll do a better job of writing in a way that readers can take in what you are writing.
If you keep that in mind, it will be almost impossible for anyone on your content team to craft a blog post or even a tweet that will go wrong, no matter what else is going on in the world.