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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.

Debra Donston-Miller

April 18, 2013

3 Min Read

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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About the Author(s)

Debra Donston-Miller


Freelance writer Debra Donston-Miller was previously editor of eWEEK and executive editorial manager of eWEEK Labs. She can be reached at [email protected].

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