Social Media During Times Of Tragedy

Social media is all about community—and in times of tragedy or national distress, community becomes more important than ever. Internet-goers use social media to reflect, react, and respond to tragedy; and though social media can easily spread hyperbole and inaccuracies, many users rely on its immediacy to share information in those first crucial moments of an unfolding event.

For brands, it can be hard to know just what to say during tragic times; but often, the best thing to say is nothing at all. Instances like American Apparel’s Hurricane Sandy sale and Kenneth Cole’s #Cairo Tweet have become synonymous with the sort of social media disasters that no corporate PR team wants to clean up; but nearly every instance of a big brand blunder can be avoided by prioritizing real, human grief over absolutely any other agenda. Basic sensitivity in times of national distress is key—and for companies who misstep, a timely and sincere apology is critical.

The anniversary of September 11 is still as somber an occasion as ever, as Americans come together to pay tribute to those who lost their lives that tragic day—and unsurprisingly, most prefer to grieve without the input of brands. Though many brands were publicly shamed for tasteless tributes, AT&T stunned with a blatant advertisement:

The company’s “Never Forget” sentiment was met with a chorus of anger, shock, and disappointment due to the brand’s exploitative imagery. Though the tweet was quickly deleted, screenshots soon circulated on major news outlets as users awaited an apology from AT&T’s corporate Twitter account. An apology did soon follow, but many found the apology to be just as offensive as the original image:

If your brand falters, a sincere apology is always advisable—but sincerity is especially crucial in times of distress. Social media is fleeting, but something as insignificant as a tweet can have critical impact on a brand’s reputation if it demonstrates an insensitivity to tragic events. AT&T’s image was tasteless, and its apology half-hearted; only time will tell the lasting effects of these two brief tweets on the company at large.

But brand tributes aren’t always tasteless—early this morning, the New York City Ballet quietly released a beautiful memorial to honor the victims of the September 11 attacks. The 3-minute video is an extraordinary performance to Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, filmed at sunrise on the 57th floor of Manhattan’s 4 World Trade Center. This somber, sincere, and breathtaking tribute carries with it no sense of promotional strategy—just a moving tribute to a city resilient.

When posting during times of tragedy, use discretion; remember that silence is always a safe strategy. If your company would like to commemorate occasions like September 11, stick to short, simple tributes, and never exploit the day with any attempt to push product. And if a new tragedy is unfolding, please—unless you can provide clarity or comfort, cancel any scheduled posts and stay quiet.