Know your audience - and what they're talking about

Last Friday, we were all privy to an unspeakable act when a gunman entered a Newtown, CT, school and opened fire on unsuspecting elementary schoolchildren, teachers, and administrators.

Last Friday, we were all privy to an unspeakable act when a gunman entered a Newtown, CT, school and opened fire on unsuspecting elementary schoolchildren, teachers, and administrators. As many an event does in today's world, information about this tragedy unfolded via digital, with news being shared on Twitter and Facebook. People nearby – and across the country – “stayed tuned” to the activities through these channels.

Within a few hours of the news breaking, it was pretty clear the story would continue to be spread and discussed heavily via social, with the gun control argument (re)igniting almost immediately. In addition to that debate, discussion about the events in Newtown dominated chatter online from coast to coast. You only had to take one look at your followers on Twitter – whether you pay attention to 50 people or 5,000 – to see that anything not about the events of the day looked garishly out of place and that those comments were beginning to attract criticism.

Internally, our team quickly discussed how we would handle matters for our clients in social – including those that we don't directly manage on those platforms. We recognized that “business as usual” wouldn't be the case that day and most likely would need to be shifted for the weekend, at least. Some organizations went silent. Others mentioned the Newtown event and left the discussions alone. Either could be seen as the right thing to do, as trivia contests or fun Friday facts could be shared another day.

Unfortunately, not everyone seemed to be paying attention. Dozens of brands, large and small, continued to post what could only be auto-Tweets or Facebook posts, most likely pre-programmed into management tools and left to be.

We talk a lot about “knowing your audience” in marketing, whether it be via PR or advertising, but there's something increasingly as important as knowing who your audience is these days – knowing what they're doing, reading, or talking about.

Had many of these organizations been truly paying attention to what was going on - not in the sense that they were completely unaware of the day's events, but regarding what their fans and followers were discussing at that very moment - much of this wouldn't have happened. Errant blog posts about the latest “Die Hard” movie poster or baseball reporters seemingly unswayed by the day's news, straining to be the first to report on a free agent signing or where the (now former) Mets pitcher would end up via a trade, wouldn't have looked completely out of place on that day.

Unfortunately, they did, and it's a lesson we should all be aware of. While it would be great if there was a manual for these sorts of situations and how an organization handles itself, this is now an ever-evolving situation. It can be used for “crisis management 101” for us all, even when the crisis might not have a direct impact on our lives or our businesses.

For me, this was the first time I've really seen a complete standstill – including the recent Hurricane Sandy chaos – of all sorts of conversations, maybe even since 9/11, which had nowhere near the amount of velocity available, in a social media sense, as we do today.

So while it's easy to say this is a lesson learned, it's clear we still have a lot to learn. Believing we all know how to behave in social media in the face of challenges near or far is most certainly something we should all aspire – and work hard – to do.

Tom Biro is VP of Allison+Partners' Seattle office. His column focuses on how digital media affects and shifts PR. He can be reached at Tom@allisonpr.com or on Twitter @tombiro.

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