Responding to tragedy on social media

Published on April 29, 2013

Epicurious boston tweets The horrific Boston Marathon bombing prompted many people and brands to get on social media to offer their condolences and, in some cases, assistance to those impacted by the atrocity. While most comments were sincere and thoughtful, one brand, Epicurious, sparked outrage with its tweets suggesting recipes to help Bostonians get through the trauma. The company quickly deleted the offending messages and apologized, but the damage to the brand was done.

Epicurious is not the first brand to fall into this trap. Famously, Kenneth Cole used the #Cairo hashtag during the Egyptian uprising to plug their new spring collection on Twitter. During Hurricane Sandy, American Apparel struck a nerve when it offered a special online discount for people in affected areas with the prompt “In case you’re bored during the storm.”

How to Avoid the Social Tragedy Trap

First, take the marketing hat off. Using tragedy as an opportunity to push products or sales is rarely a good idea. Unless you are giving away snow shovels during a blizzard and want to communicate to people how to take advantage- step out of the marketing mindset and be sincere, human and offer an authentic response to the events. We do not believe the saying “there is no such thing as bad press.” Consumers remember social media mishaps like this for a very long time, and it may impact whether someone buys from you or your competition in the future.

How Should Brands Respond to Tragedy on Social Media

Another question we have clients ask us is if they should post about a tragic event and at what point a tragedy becomes post worthy. First, consider your brand. If you have a brand that focuses on being fun and light hearted, then you may not want to draw attention to tragedy. Second, ask what you have to offer to the conversation. If your brand does business in the impacted community, then you have a connection that you can discuss on social media. Or, if your customers are in the impacted community you may want to let them know that you are thinking about them. If you are not connected but feel your brand’s voice is caring and compassionate, then posting is still appropriate when done without putting marketing first.

When one of our clients debated about posting something on Boston, we considered their voice. We determined that it was fitting within the brand to offer condolences. The post performed similarly to their other content, showing that fans were just as likely to engage with the condolences post as they were with the brand-centered content.

Have a Plan Before You Post

As in all social media crisis situations, it’s best to have this discussion before the next tragedy to ensure that you can easily answer if and how you will respond to a tragedy. Being prepared now can prevent an Epicurious mistake in the future.