Publishing strategy in times of tragedy

Let's talk about when not to publish: during a tragedy.

I wrote quite a bit this week about publishing: why brands need to think of themselves as publishers and how to refocus the newsroom model toward business goals. Now let's talk about when not to publish: during a tragedy. 

I'm not talking about your minor social media flare-up; I'm referring to true tragedies with a national focus. Tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing, the Oklahoma tornadoes, Newtown…sadly this list can continue on, and it's inevitable that we'll see another event before the end of this year.

What do you do when an external tragedy occurs?

First, just stop. Stop all publishing, everywhere. Many large brands use social media tools to manage and schedule content. Make sure you've pulled everything that's been scheduled.  There's nothing worse than an automated tweet offering a coupon or “an amazing deal” auto-publishing right after tragedy strikes.

Let's step back for a minute and talk about planning. Just as you need a traditional crisis plan, you should have a tragedy plan. Can you quickly halt social media publishing across your entire organization in time of tragedy? If yes, then great, skip to the next paragraph. No? Then start by mapping out all your existing social channels. Who manages them? Do you have an effective way to communicate immediately with all account owners? Develop an internal alert system and revise and test it periodically. Hopefully this entire process can piggyback on an existing crisis plan.

Once you've halted publishing, the next big question is when to resume it. This is usually the most difficult and sensitive subject. The answer isn't trivial, and there's no one simple answer. Each client situation is unique. Misgauge public reaction to a situation and your brand suffers angry blowback from an audience that sees opportunistic branded promotion in time of tragedy. Waiting for CNN or Mashable to identify and write an article about a brand that has “failed” during a tragedy is now an expected part of the news cycle for any event.

To re-establish your publishing efforts successfully, you need to understand your audience and how your channels fit within the broader online community, as well as a few other factors:

Proximity: Where did the tragedy take place? If you're not a global company and something happens somewhere halfway across the world, you may not feel as immediate a need to halt publishing. If the tragedy happens in your home country, it may be more important to gauge the national mood by listening to and observing the online chatter and conversation before moving forward. If you're a local business or one with a big presence in a community that's been devastated, you'll want to shut down for a time even if your business is not directly impacted.

Scale: The more people that are affected by a tragedy, the more likely it is to be a significant news story, and the more likely that the general public – and you – will react to it. If a handful of casualties occur, it's still a distressing event, but it's less likely to cause a turn in public sentiment sharp enough to generate a backlash against brands and organizations that choose to continue publishing. But when mass casualties or destruction is involved, it's wise to take a break out of respect for the victims.

Surprise: Another factor in people's reaction is the amount of surprise or unexpectedness in the incident. The greater the shock of the event, the more likely the public will consider ongoing branding or promotional activity inappropriate. A shooting in a school is not something even the most jaded audience member anticipates or is emotionally unaffected by.

The news cycle: Some tragedies by their nature are more prominent in the news cycle than others; the more an event dominates the news, both on the day it occurs and in its aftermath in the following 24 hours or more, the less advisable it is to continue publishing. Even if no one gets upset with you for publishing in the aftermath of a crisis, if no one sees or interacts with your content because they're paying attention to the tragedy, the less advisable it is for you to publish. Wait for things to calm down and return to normal.

Taking all those factors into account, decide the best time to re-engage with your audience, depending on how your brand was impacted by the tragedy and its place in the community. Look at how New Balance handled the Boston Marathon bombing. It is part of the Boston community and the running community, and had staff on site working and competing when the bombing took place. Seeing New Balance engaged during the tragedy was a natural effort of support.

Do you acknowledge the tragedy or not? Once again, there is no standard answer for this. Every organization must decide the response and action that best fits its character and values. That said, there is one definitive “don't do” in this equation: Never try to draw a connection of any kind between your brand or one of its campaigns in your response. Don't use one of your own hashtags in a tweet expressing sympathy for victims. And, never link back to one of your products in a clumsy effort to promote yourself while capturing some of the attention paid to the tragedy.

Finally, as you slowly build back to your normal publishing volume, review all your content and make sure nothing could be viewed as insensitive to the tragedy. A few days out, recap how your organization handled the tragedy: learn, adjust your planning, and look to be better prepared for the next event.

Josh Hallett is SVP at PNConnect, Porter Novelli's digital team.

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