The Talk

Social media marketing should be silent in wake of national tragedy

By - Last modified: April 18, 2013 at 12:44 PM

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Monday afternoon, like many people who handle the social media for their companies, I was just about to make a Facebook post – in my case asking people to vote in our latest poll.

Before I could hit "send," though, I noticed a little breaking news box at the top of my news feed. Bombs had gone off at the Boston Marathon finish line, and people had died.

Like most everyone, I was dumbstruck. I canceled my post and instead reposted the breaking news story. Others would want to know.

Posting stories and questions is part of my everyday routine, and it has become almost automatic for me to make my posts at certain points during the day. It's my job.

I had to stop myself and say, "No, people don't need to see that now," and leave my Facebook page empty for the rest of the day. It seemed strange.

That's also what Tracey Werner, president of Blabbermouth Communications in Easton, did.

After posting the initial story, she chose "radio silence" for her and her clients' social media sites out of respect to those killed and hurt in the blast – and to the sense of mourning being felt by the entire community.

Social media in the wake of a national tragedy is difficult.

"When an event like this – such a gruesome event – happens, it has everyone's attention," Werner said.

She said any company that continues to put out marketing material on social media sites in the wake of such a tragedy is risking serious backlash.

"People are very critical of brands and companies that continue to promote themselves after something like this," she said.

A problem often occurs when companies use software that automatically posts pre-scheduled promotions on social media sites. If someone isn't paying attention at his or her computer, inappropriate posts may continue to go out after a high-profile tragedy occurs.

But what if you have a company that is closely associated with or connected to the tragedy at hand?

In the wake of the explosions, Brian Haines, owner of Aardvark Sports Shop, a running-shoe store in Bethlehem, was unsure of what to do.

"It's been a little bit of a struggle for me," he said.

On one hand, he didn't want his customers to think he was using the tragedy to boost sales, but on the other he knew many running fans were looking to his store for some sort of reaction to the tragedy that touched them all so closely.

"We didn't take action until we got feedback from our fellow running industry retailers," Haines said.

In the end, he decided to join with the Independent Running Retailers Association – the national trade organization for his industry – in promoting "Runners for Boston," which was raising funds and holding events around the country to honor the victims.

The store also is hosting two runs from its store in the Shoppes at Main Street Commons at the corner of Main and Broad Streets in Bethlehem. One is 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 22, followed by a second at 6 p.m. April 24 at 6 p.m. Both are being held to honor the victims.

Werner said the decision on how to handle social media and marketing after a tragedy depends on many things.

She noted that the blast in Texas on Wednesday night that killed at least five people and injured more than 150 didn't have the same impact.

While it was equally tragic, because it appeared to be a terrible accident versus an act of terrorism, it didn't strike the same fear into people's hearts.

"We expect tragedies to happen. Terrorism sets us back a little more," she said.

Proximity also was an issue.

"If such a blast had occurred in Pennsylvania, yes everything would have shut down. It would be all that anyone would want to talk about," Werner said.

She said, for example, if social media had been more prevalent at the time of the 9/11 attacks, "radio silence" on social media would have been the proper protocol for weeks.

"Really, no one could talk about anything else for a very long time after that," she recalled.

To know when it's OK to start tweeting again, she said to look to see what others are doing. If you go on Twitter or Facebook and see that the conversations seem to have returned to normal, you can "stick your toe in" and see if your message is welcome – but prepare to respond quickly if the feedback is negative.

Stacy Wescoe

Stacy Wescoe

Writer and online editor Stacy Wescoe covers technology and trends plus keeps you up to date on what coworkers and competitors are talking about around the water cooler and on social media. Reach her at stacyw@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 104. Follow her on Twitter at @morestacy and on Facebook and circle her on Google+.

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