July 8, 2016 Samuel Klein

Brand communication during tragedy: 5 essential tips for authentic messages

Every once in a while, a big tragedy (be it natural, or human caused) touches our hearts and even shakes us to the core of our existence. On June 12, the world condemned the attack on a LGBT+ nightclub in Orlando, Fl. which caused the death of over 50 people, just in the middle of Pride month. Many brands expressed their condolences and messages of support for the LGBT+ community and the city of Orlando.

We can’t plan for events of this magnitude, but with a properly designed emergency plan, we can develop appropriate, empathetic content on the go that customers will appreciate. A single tweet or a well-designed Instagram image might not heal emotional wounds, but it can help to raise our customers’ spirits and humanize our brand.


Below, I outline the five most important things to take care of, communications-wise, in the midst of a dramatic event:


Listen first: This isn’t a forum or a celebrity’s Instagram comment section. You don’t need to be the FIRST to make a statement regarding an event, so don’t rush it. Instead, make sure your social media team is informed about the incident and the conversations around it. Monitor the news and local reactions to properly measure a response to the event.


Brand communication during tragedy: 5 essential tips for authentic messages

Everyone remembers the infamous tweet from clothing designer Kenneth Cole, during the protests in Egypt of 2011, as an example of not listening to the ongoing conversation about the conflict, and trying to use its virality to the brand’s advantage.


Be genuine: Just as if we were consoling a bereaved loved one, authenticity and simplicity is key. This is not the time for pre-packaged feelings and clichés of the “This Too Shall Pass” type. Readers and customers know when a brand is trying too hard, and are quick to reject it.


Brand communication during tragedy: 5 essential tips for authentic messages

Sometimes, a short message is ok, other times, silence is a valid sign of respect.


The unexpected passing of music legend Prince shocked fans worldwide, and painted the social media landscape purple (as an homage to his iconic Purple Rain album/movie). Chevrolet went in a different direction and with a picture of a red Corvette, paid their respects to the singer.


Choose neutral keywords: The next step after listening is to create the message. Gone are the times of long-winded statements. When communication is fast and comes from every angle, the message must be precise and timely. Monitor the main hashtags or trending topics associated with the event. Avoid polarizing labels and pick one that fits adequately with the message you would like to convey.


Twitter Open, the official Twitter channel for promoting LGBT+ inclusion, released two reaction tweets to the Orlando tragedy: a Martin Luther King quote and an official statement, using the hashtag #LoveIsLove and a multi-colored heart.


Brand communication during tragedy: 5 essential tips for authentic messages

Stop any programmed content on its tracks: There’s nothing worse than launching an inappropriate post or tweet in the midst of a national tragedy. Something that could’ve sounded funny or clever under normal circumstances, comes across as insensitive and tone deaf. It’s best to remove all programmed content from the day, as a sign of respect. Also, review the content calendar of the following days, just in case there is anything that might be too sensitive.


In 2012, a concert in Toronto from the band Radiohead was cancelled due to the collapse of some of venue’s stage, causing one dead and several injured. LiveNation, the promoter of the event informed of the cancellation of the show, but, 30 minutes later, a scheduled tweet inviting fans to share Instagram photos of the show went live. Fans of the band slammed LiveNation on Twitter for the embarrassing mistake:


Brand communication during tragedy: 5 essential tips for authentic messages


For the love of love, don’t use a tragedy as an opportunity to promote your brand! An attention-seeking attitude like this one, even if it comes from noble intentions, won’t be well received by customers, especially by those who were directly affected by the event.


The food website Epicurious rose to infamy in 2013, shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing. In an attempt to empathize, or get more page views, two tweets mentioning the tragedy and offering breakfast recipes went live. Bostonians and followers soon slammed the website, and they took both tweets down:


Brand communication during tragedy: 5 essential tips for authentic messages


In the same vein, this is not the time to insert a promotional hashtag, catchphrase, no matter how fitting could it be. Imagine how tasteless would it be for a movie franchise about governments and terrorism to latch on to the Boston Marathon bombing, or 9/11, to promote itself.


What about annual remembrance content?


Regarding commemorating the anniversary of a big tragedy, it’s crucial to watch out for two things: how recently it happened (or if it’s a milestone anniversary), and how much was the social impact in our public. It’s accepted to acknowledge the tragedy,  Besides that, consider applying the same rules for elaborating messages right after the event, in regards to simplicity, authenticity and no mediocre statements.


Unfortunately, the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks brings many examples on how not to commemorate an event of this magnitude in social media. Every year, sites like the Huffington Post, AdAge and Adweek make a roundup of the worst tweets from brands. One of the most infamous happened in 2013, when AT&T reminded their customers that they are a communications company:



After the expected digital outrage ensued, the brand issued a lackluster apology, and we’re still not sure how posting an image of a phone taking a picture pays respect to the lives lost on that infamous day.


In conclusion

People, not insensitive robots, run companies. It’s valid to empathize with our peers in times of social bereavement, and show our most human side. However, no matter how affected we are by a tragedy, we must put our emotions and quick exposure impulses aside, and build a quality message with spirit and authenticity. The main purpose isn’t to sell or to call the attention to brands, but to unite in common values of solidarity and empathy.


Let’s hope we won’t have to use these tips again this year. But, if we have to, we invite you to put your customers’ hearts first, above anything else, in your communication.


Sometimes, you can empathize more without a single word:


Brand communication during tragedy: 5 essential tips for authentic messages


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