To be effective in social media, brands must create, curate, and share rewarding, relevant content. The buying public responds to quality content by consuming it, liking it, and sharing it. And low and behold, the brand is elevated, sales increase. But, when brand content isn’t relevant, or if strikes the wrong note (is it a pushy sales pitch? is it a poor attempt at humor playing on stereotypes?) the brand will be ignored, criticized, or even tarred and feathered by relentless detractors.

One scenario where the public is particularly sensitive to klutzy brand behavior is in the wake of a major crisis, either a domestic crisis as for US brands after the San Bernardino shootings, or an international crisis like the Paris terror attacks of November 2015.

Two mistakes that are commonly made by brands during crises are first, not reacting at all, which is to say, they act as if nothing has happened after the social media conversation has shifted focus to the crisis, and second, participating in the conversation in a way which makes it appear as if the brand is trying to promote itself (akin to clickjacking or hashtag takeovers).

Regarding the first, not reacting at all, the proper response for a brand usually is to pause normal social media activity for a time. As Kevin Pedraja wrote in the Sterling Communications blog

"[T]he authentic human reaction to tragedy is to stop what you’re doing and pay attention. …Real humans (generally) don’t break into a highly charged, emotional conversation to offer their own mundane, off-topic updates.”

Regarding the second, reacting in a way that appears to be self-interested: Some brands are inherently involved in crisis relief efforts, as, for example, the Red Cross is involved in spreading information about food, water, and shelter after a natural disaster. For everyone else, any mention the brand makes of the crisis risks creating the perception that the brand is attempting to leverage the crisis for the purpose of making themselves look good – to sell, in other words.

For examples concerning the Paris attacks, this Adweek piece thoughtfully examines a range of brand responses and public perceptions of those responses. In a nutshell, it’s challenging to hit the right note. On one extreme, a tweet by Kenneth Cole that explicitly sought to capitalize on the tragedy in Syria to sell shoes garnered a good deal of criticism. And on the other end, brands who seemed to “get it right” still faced criticism, counterintuitively, for opportunistically acknowledging the victims of the Paris attacks while ignoring other crises.

With this context I can offer four pieces of advice to online brands about social media activity after a crisis.

  1. Put in place a crisis plan that can be initiated 24x7x365, which is to say, it can be set in motion by someone who has authority to act even when the usual decision makers are asleep or on vacation. The plan should create the mechanisms needed to implement points 2-4, below.

  2. When a crisis lands, pause “business as usual” social media activity, including posts which were scheduled for automatic posting before the crisis landed. Unless immediately notified, many community managers and social sellers and/or employee advocates will very likely continue to post content that may be insensitive to the crisis, or their social media tools (like Trapit and Buffer) will pump those posts out for them unless they are rescheduled. For this reason, brands should have email, SMS, or even telephone outreach in place and ready to notify all social media users that they should pause normal activity for a period of time.

  3. When a crisis lands, send an advisory to both the company’s social account community managers and its social sellers and/or employee advocates regarding the sort of posts that are appropriate (or inappropriate) in light of what has occurred. Well meaning community managers or executives may create awkward sympathy posts that hit the wrong note with a hyper-sensitive public. For this reason all official sympathy posts should be carefully reviewed, or to be safe, it might be a better idea to simply remain silent. And although brands are generally better off not trying to direct employees’ personal expressions of sympathy during a crisis, individual social sellers and employee advocates may simply be advised to avoid posting company content for a period of time during the crisis. Perhaps an employer could say “You are free to respond to the crisis as you see fit, however, please refrain from sharing content from our library [such as a Trapit library] for this period of time.” The exception might be public service posts, as noted above, as with Red Cross employees who might be encouraged to retweet information about the availability of shelters after a hurricane, etc. 

  4. Steps 2 and 3 should be bounded by the scope of the crisis. For example, although arguably every brand would have been well advised to implement steps 2 and 3 worldwide after the Paris attacks, perhaps a brand would only want to reach out to social media managers and social sellers/employee advocates in a certain country after a personal tragedy affecting a beloved sports personality or political figure from that country, for example.

I’d love to read your examples of post crisis social media communication handled well and handled poorly, as well as your take on what should be included in brands’ crisis response. Feel free to share your comments below.

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Posted by Bruce Wilson

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