What should a brand post during bad news cycles?

Tragedies happen. Deaths are inevitable and high profile people get a lot of attention - and there have been a lot of high profile deaths this year. If you listen to people like me telling you how to manage social media for your business, you're posting regularly - yes, even using tools for automation - and you might end up posting during a time when people are upset about one event or another. There are two common questions: The first is whether you should pause your business feed. The second is whether or not you should comment on said event. 

I tend to have a more open viewpoint on these questions than some, and I don't agree with the view that there's a best practice in this area. I think there's a safe practice. If you err on the side of not posting, you're not opening yourself up to criticism. Therefore your brand is safe from the inevitable ugly scrutiny, such as the outrage that spread quickly after Prince's recent passing. 

Is it truly inappropriate to post during a tragedy? This is a hard question to answer, because the answer is "it depends". Here are just a few questions to think about:

  • What is your business' relationship to the tragic event?
  • How much impact is there in your community?
  • Are you geographically close?
  • Do you have connections to those affected? Are they business or personal?
  • Is your business in a closely relevant industry? 
  • What is the scale of the event? Are we talking one or two local news cycles or will this be talked about for weeks or months nationally?

When you start to weigh all these things, it's easy to see why so many default to the "don't post" rule. The problem is that rule doesn't take into account the absolute fact that there are humans behind brands with feelings and good intentions that don't always include the desire to make a sale. Yes, sometimes the inclusion of branding is blatant and comes across insensitive and salesy. Perhaps in those cases there's good justification for criticism, like these blatant sales messages during Hurricane Sandy. To me, this tweet from Getty is in the realm of salesy, not tribute:

Should you pause posting as a brand?

I don't remember the first time I saw outrage about brand posts after a tragic event, but the one I remember best was about 3 years ago after the Boston Marathon. I was attending a conference in Toronto at the time and about an hour or so after I heard about the bombing, I got news of a cancer diagnosis of a close family member. Needless to say, I really don't remember anything about the conference that afternoon. Tragedy struck a city on a major scale. Cancer struck my world on a major scale. 

I stopped tweeting about the conference. I used the conference hashtag to let others who were tweeting know about Boston in case they were unaware. The tweet stream went on through the day. People didn't stop talking about what was going on at the conference. Life was going on, as it does. But it didn't take long for the criticism to start. People were killed and maimed, probably by a terrorist bomb, and people were online talking about their lunch or their business, or the conference they were attending. And if anyone appeared to let scheduled content continue to run, they were pretty much the devil incarnate.

The reality is that life does go on even in the midst of devastating news and events. When such incidents come to light, it's important to weigh the impact of these events on the audience you serve. The last thing a city, state, country, etc., experiencing tragedy wants to see is an invitation to order a pizza or buy clothes or other frivolous calls to action. 

Once again, it depends on the situation whether it's appropriate to pause. It's a decision that can and should be made on a case-by-case basis unless you opt for the blanket "don't post" approach. While I can respect that view, it does feel somewhat like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

Should your brand/business entity comment on tragic events?

This question is even harder to answer than the question of pausing your feed. And here's my possibly unpopular opinion:

"Brands" are entities. They are not human, but the creators and operators are. Brands do not exist without humans in the background. I guess that's why I don't really have a problem with many of the tributes that came out from various brands after Prince died, with exception to the Getty one I mentioned above and a few others that were seriously misguided. It's too bad that Cheerios deleted their tweet - I just don't see that one as offensive. No one is going to be persuaded to go out and buy Cheerios because they dotted the i with a Cheerio. 

Brand tribute. Not on social media. No complaints.

Brand tribute. Not on social media. No complaints.

The Daily Dot piece suggests that many of these sentiments could be shared on personal accounts, and I agree. But it smacks of a double standard toward brands to tell them they shouldn't react in a human way to events that impact us as humans. It's fine to want them to donate to causes that help make the world better, but showing sentiment takes it too far? 

Content marketers talk all the time about how content shouldn't be about selling all the time, but the minute a death or tragic event happens and a brand responds they're exploiting said event for profits. (That's a bold judgement for anyone who isn't in the room with the people deciding what to post to make unless the messaging is a blatant call for sales, like Getty. Can you tell theirs rubbed me the wrong way?)

We can't have it both ways. Either brands must be human and be allowed to show human sentiment, or we have to relegate them to corporate drone status, with only the ability to sell. 

I'm not a fan of the latter option personally. I connect better with brands that show a human side and appropriate reactions to any event - good or bad. 

Criticism distracts from the real issues

One last thought I had as I was considering all of the angles of how brands can deal with these situations is that the immediate rush to judgement is actually a major distraction from news of an incident. Yes, the first one to post a negative article wins, but then the whole debate starts and that becomes the news rather than the news being the news. I think this is less of an issue with a celebrity death, because let's face it, we connect with celebs on a different level than we do family or friends. However, I'd find this (old and tired) debate inappropriate if it occurred after news of the Paris or Beirut attacks or another similar event, such as the Boston Marathon. 

The bottom line is brands that go too far will not be rewarded. Like any piece of content, if their audience doesn't like it, they will suffer for it. Brands that have appropriate reactions may get some criticism, but they're probably getting criticized to a similar extent no matter what they post. Reactions to news events are, understandably, going to get greater attention and higher amounts of criticism. Unless the criticism is disproportionate compared to other content, I don't see why damage control measures should be required, but that's also not an easy call when you're in the thick of a negative situation.

As followers and influencers, we have the ability to help brands learn what is and is not appropriate. While not everyone will agree onappropriateness of different items, it doesn't help to instill fear into brands (big or small) about posting when bad news strikes. If we want to have better, more human content, we also have to give brands permission to react when individuals are reacting to events. After all, the people behind the brand don't turn into robots when they walk into work every day.