When tragedy strikes, take stock – and hit the social media pause button

Photo of a thumb pressing the pause button on a remoteWhen the news broke of last Friday’s attack on a Newtown, Connecticut school, many people turned to social networks: some looking for news, others for comfort, and still others a forum to express themselves.

But amidst the flood of messages of concern, sympathy and anguish on Twitter, you could also see businesses blithely tweeting about deep discounts and holiday sales, and organizations asking their followers to retweet cute photos of cats. And they reaped a whirlwind of online anger over their callousness and insensitivity.

In most cases, though, callousness wasn’t the problem. Automation was.

These days, a host of services allow you to preschedule updates to your online presence and social networks. WordPress lets you tee up a queue of blog posts, and (if you’ve installed the Jetpack plugin) automatically send tweets and Facebook updates when they publish themselves. Tools like HootSuite and Buffer let you schedule updates to a range of social networks — in HootSuite’s case, even allowing you to upload a spreadsheet of up to 350 updates at once.

That’s convenient. And it can mean that a communications department that’s being asked to perform at three times their capacity (which is to say, every communications department) can keep the flow of content going with far less effort, and focus instead on conversation and engagement.

Which is great… until your automated voice tosses off a casual earthquake metaphor an hour after the real thing has just hit somewhere. Big brands and small organizations alike have been tripped up that way in the aftermath of everything from the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan to Hurricane Sandy a few weeks ago.

When tragedy strikes, take a moment to catch your breath and compose yourself. And then do a systematic inventory of your communications schedule for the next several days, asking yourself if they’re appropriate – not just defensible if somebody complains, but sensitive to the moment at hand.

Where to look for pre-scheduled content:

  • Scheduled social media updates. Are you using services like HootSuite or Buffer that let you schedule posts in advance? Give any scheduled posts a good, hard look, and consider postponing any that can wait for a few days, and rewriting the others if their tone is likely to be jarring.
  • Your blog and content management system. If you’re teeing up blog posts and other web content in advance, good on you – but check the queue for anything that could seem inappropriate. Edit or reschedule if necessary.
  • Social ads. If you’re running self-serve ads like those on Facebook, Google and LinkedIn, check them carefully.
  • Mailings and newsletters. Both internal and external newsletters and mailings may contain perfectly innocent content that, considered in the wake of tragedy or disaster, seems cruel or mean-spirited.

For the same reasons, make sure your organization’s leadership and communications staff know about the event as soon as possible, so they don’t unwittingly post something that would look callous in light of that information. And if your organization is commenting on the tragedy, spread that message immediately to staff and members, so they have the chance to reflect its tone and content in their personal social media conversations.

Of course, all of this is on top of the moving wheels of more traditional communications — such as print, broadcast and online ad buys — that will continue turning unless someone intervenes. Those usually get less scrutiny, because they aren’t seen as real-time channels. But your message could still be inadvertently jarring, especially if it’s juxtaposed with a news story about the tragedy. Call your ad agency (you have our number!) for a quick check-in if you’re at all concerned.

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