After a tragedy like the Paris attacks, brands are faced with a social media challenge: How can they respond in a genuine way, without being seen as exploiting a trending topic?
Many brands opted to chime in after the November 13 terrorist attacks with words and images of support and solidarity. As is usually the case after a tragic event, some efforts were better than others.
Amazon’s banner image of the French flag with the single word “Solidarité” (and the absence of products and promotional language) conveyed a somber tone.
On the other hand, 50 Cent’s appeal to pray for Paris—while simultaneously pushing branded hashtags—quickly earned user ire.
The decision to join the conversation after a tragic or negative event should never be taken lightly. Even while many users expect brands to express their values, crafting the right response is a delicate tightrope walk. A poorly worded comment could be perceived as inauthentic at best, exploitative and insensitive at worst.
Indeed, past tragedies are rife with brands’ failed attempts to offer their two cents. Epicurious, ordinarily an interesting foodie website, infamously erred with a pair of incredibly tone-deaf Tweets after the Boston marathon bombing. “Boston, our hearts are with you,” one Tweet began, only to include a recipe for breakfast quinoa. That generated considerable negative feedback and forced the brand to apologize repeatedly, as Frank Eliason of Zero Group noted.
The bottom line: Don’t use a tragedy to promote your brand or product.
Users notice when brands and public figures use tragedy to forward their own ends. Instead of inspiring emotion, branded comments will come across as false and hollow, a shallow attempt by brands to use a trending hashtag to gain followers, shout out their own message, and pump up their brand image.
“Before we knew all that much about what had happened, before many Americans had even caught word of it, before the ones who were aware had moved past horror and numbness, Paris wasn’t just a massacre. It was a megaphone to be used for whatever you yearned to shout,” wrote Frank Bruni of The New York Times.
Backlash is inevitable. On Twitter, users called out brands and celebrities for jumping on the Paris attacks bandwagon. Brands should take note. During tragic events, people are looking for news, information, or emotional connection. What their favorite brand thinks about current events is of little importance.
It’s tempting for brands to want to comment on trending topics. But in the case of tragic or negative events, silence is often the best response.
For starters, brands need to know when to press pause on scheduled tweets. That requires being aware of how international, national and even local events are affecting audience conversations on social media. For example, news about the Boston marathon bombing overwhelmed other topics on social for several days. During such times, brands need to move quickly to pause all scheduled tweets and delay promotional campaigns that would seem superficial.
Secondly, if brands don’t have something meaningful to say, don’t bother. Yes, it’s possible for brands to capture the right tone after a tragedy, particularly when they offer a helpful service, like Skype and Verizon’s offer of free calls to France. It also may be appropriate for brands with specific ties to an event to offer a response. Nike Running offered a well-received message of condolence after the Boston marathon bombing.
But except in rare instances, brands that offer sympathy on social media risk looking like they’re using tragedy to earn publicity points. A heartfelt message from a brand mouthpiece easily looks like profiteering. But, if you must post a response, it’s critically important to leave out branded details in the content, like hashtags, links to company pages, or branded photos. Such self-serving content detracts from the sincerity of the message—and may even spark brand backlash.
For more thoughts on navigating social media, explore Skyword’s webinar on mastering the art of social media content.