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When Tragedy Strikes, It's Not Social Business As Usual

In the aftermath of tragic events, respect and restraint should guide organizations on social media.

If there were any doubts remaining about the power of social media, they were squelched this week during the horrific events around the Boston Marathon. Amid the chaos and overloaded cell networks, Twitter and Facebook became lifelines -- in some cases, literally -- for runners, spectators, event staff and first responders. In the days since the bombings, social media has played a key role in the investigation into who perpetrated the attacks.

I am a lifelong resident of Massachusetts, and for me "Marathon Monday" has always been a day for celebrating the human spirit, courage and perseverance, often against all odds. As has happened far too many times in the last couple of years, I first learned on social media that something had gone horribly wrong: first one isolated post, typically ending with a question mark. Then another. And another, followed by a rush of comments. Then a story from a news outlet, and another, followed by the sinking feeling that, yes, it's really happening. Next, the outpouring of thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families. Finally, invariably, the heartfelt and creative images that are posted, and shared, and shared again.

On April 15, all of the above happened in the course of less than half an hour. And that's about how much time organizations that do business on social networks have to respond -- or not respond -- to events that affect their customers and the global community.

[ Beware of spammers who exploit tragedies for malicious purposes. Read Malware Attackers Exploit Boston Marathon Bombing. ]

Shortly after it became clear that what was happening in Boston was no accident, I saw a tweet from a social business expert saying that now would be a really good time for businesses who have automated updates scheduled to postpone them. I thought that was excellent advice, and based on my own Facebook and Twitter feeds, it was the protocol that many businesses followed. An update that would be perfectly acceptable on a normal day could take on a whole new meaning on a day when "normal" seems very far away. Even the act of updating alone could be considered insensitive.

I also noticed that businesses that chose to acknowledge the bombings at the Marathon kept their posts very simple. For example, on Facebook, Wholly Guacamole posted a photo of Boston's skyline, captioned "We stand with Boston." The update accompanying it read, "To our friends, family and fans in Boston, no words to describe the heartache."

As individuals and businesses alike work to keep pace with the speed of social, it's extremely important to react quickly but sensitively, and to always consider the context within which your updates and activity on social media will be taken.

It's not social business as usual.

We stand with Boston.

Follow Deb Donston-Miller on Twitter at @debdonston.

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professional web design
professional web design,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/23/2013 | 11:23:02 AM
re: When Tragedy Strikes, It's Not Social Business As Usual
Hard to see it as a power-posture when wearing flip-flops...
Deb Donston-Miller
Deb Donston-Miller,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/19/2013 | 8:44:24 PM
re: When Tragedy Strikes, It's Not Social Business As Usual
Thanks, wht. You make some great points. I think what you get from social media is more of the human factor. And, where this particular event has hit so close to home for me and many of my friends, family and co-workers, it has definitely provided news about how people are doing/whether they are safe/how we can help.

Deb Donston-Miller
Contributing Editor, InformationWeek/The BrainYard
User Rank: Strategist
4/19/2013 | 5:47:38 PM
re: When Tragedy Strikes, It's Not Social Business As Usual
Mainstream media (CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, FOX, print media, etc) don't always have their stories correct, verified or not. However there is a better chance of a retraction of an article or broadcast from them when the error is discovered. Social media has much less verification, no retraction once posted, and a very high chance that you might miss seeing a correction or update. With much caution I watch and read mainstream media reports of ongoing events, with the expectation that the real story might not be known for 24-48 hours, or perhaps never, depending upon their slant and what the government wants me to believe. I take no real value in social media postings. They are just a curiosity at this point in time, feeding my thoughts of "needing to know" because I am a news junkie, and have been since the 6th grade decades ago. You might call me a slow learner!
User Rank: Strategist
4/19/2013 | 3:11:53 PM
re: When Tragedy Strikes, It's Not Social Business As Usual
"Taking social media at face value" should take on a new meaning after reading a recent statistic on social media (Tweeter related identification of the suspects). The article (from MSNBC's site) cited tweets which identified the suspects by name which turned out to be inaccurate and unrelated to the actual persons involved (innocent victims of mistaken identity). Still their names were retweeted to the public in excess of 3500 times. Social media participant's generally do not follow source verification protocols and without being able to identify the source, I think that development of a lynch mob mentality could be very realistic. Maybe everyone and not just businesses should take a step back and consider their content/necessity? Will this fuel some members of the ambulance chasing legal community to consider new line of business opportunities or establishing precedents for defamation or slander based on the inaccuracies of social media?
Drew Conry-Murray
Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
4/19/2013 | 12:15:18 AM
re: When Tragedy Strikes, It's Not Social Business As Usual
There does seem to be a social media etiquette emerging around disasters and tragedies that turns off the self-promotional aspect of these platforms (at least for a little while). It's a sensible development. I know I cringe when I see a Tweet promoting a blog or making a bacon joke amidst a stream of messages sharing information about a catastrophe and offering support for victims.

Drew Conry-Murray
Editor, Network Computing
Nathan Golia
Nathan Golia,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/18/2013 | 8:33:18 PM
re: When Tragedy Strikes, It's Not Social Business As Usual
Social media is an interesting place after a catastrophe. For a long time, I had a Twitter search for "insurance sandy" live, in case of interesting leads. But I rarely felt comfortable taking any of them at face value Gă÷ a lesson many have probably learned in the wake of the CNN fiasco.
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