Should Brands Go Dark on Social Media After Disaster?

There’s a new best practice in social media marketing. In an era where communications is continuous and real-time, there’s a directive to go dark in times of disaster.

When the last public tragedy occurred (maybe it was the Sandy Hook shooting) I saw a number of brands I follow on social media announce they’d be taking a moment of silence for the remainder of the day out of respect or remembrance for the victims of the horrific events that occurred.

After Monday’s Boston Marathon bombing, one of the fashion blogs I follow tweeted this:

Scott Monty, Ford Motor Company’s highly visible social media marketer with more than 90k Twitter followers, put it into words:


The reply from Casie Stewart describes how one social media management software actually alerted users to the fact that something happened in the public sphere, and while I didn’t see exactly what this reminder said, I can only assume it suggested that users watch out for being too chatty the rest of the day.

If anyone reading is a Social Sprout user, I’d be very interested to know exactly what the notification said, because here’s the thing.

I’m not sold on this new directive.

Bringing business as usual to a screeching halt is quite the opposite of “keep calm and carry on” and it could be argued it gives power to the terrorists.

holding handsMore importantly, however, we all agree that social media is a brilliant tool for disseminating news and having shared experiences. As Kristi recounted on the blog yesterday, Twitter and Facebook acted as connective tissue for a traumatized nation. The reason that social media can be used so readily as a warning system and a gathering place to grieve is because it’s woven into the thread of how we communicate. It’s part of our lives.

To cut out commerce from that fabric is to label it as less than good. It implies that there’s something dirty about business, and when things become serious we should really stop indulging in such uncouth behavior. It’s insensitive to engage in frivolous behavior when people are dying. Except, what’s frivolous about marketing when a business’s success supports families and individuals, puts food on the table?

Commerce, with its offspring marketing, is an important vein in the global body, transporting financial life blood throughout the world. Doing business can’t be treated as less good or a luxury appropriate only in times of prosperity, and so I’d like to discourage an attitude that looks down on brands for continuing to do their work after a tragic event.

Let’s not give so much power to tragedy that it paralyzes us. If you feel moved to be silent, then let yourself process in the way that feels right. Then recognize that grief doesn’t take one form. For some, healing comes from continuing on with life.

I’d love your thoughts on this emerging attitude, agree or disagree. It can be so hard to understand how things like the Boston Marathon bombing can happen. Any ideas about how senseless tragedy can be better processed through the public experience is a welcome lesson.  

Virginia Nussey is the director of content marketing at MobileMonkey. Prior to joining this startup in 2018, Virginia was the operations and content manager at Bruce Clay Inc., having joined the company in 2008 as a writer and blogger.

See Virginia's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (12)
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12 Replies to “Should Brands Go Dark on Social Media After Disaster?”

The Sprout Social message didn’t say to go dark. It suggested reviewing all scheduled posts for suitability. I thought it was very well done.

During the Boston Marathon I was on-site with a client and we discussed a “our thoughts are with you” post, but decided against it. We reviewed to ensure nothing was offensive, but our audience is global and while this seems harsh, there wasn’t a direct enough relationship.

Versus Sandy Hook. I was working with the US audience of a global company. We did go dark (and announced our plan). we were criticized as well as praised for our decision. It was on our soils and 20 children were killed. I hate to have to grade tragedies, but it was a bigger impact.

As with all social marketing there is no blanket right or wrong, it’s what’s right for your audience.

Thanks for filling in that detail, Bianca. Sounds like Social Sprout did a good service. It’s been interesting to hear about how you and others weighed the decision of whether or not it was appropriate for a brand to address an issue like the Boston Marathon bombing with their audience, and hear the different factors that went in to that choice.

Great thoughts, Virginia. I love that we’re having this discussion in online marketing – I think it’s a real sign of maturation and sophistication. So my thoughts have already gotten a bit of airtime (thanks, Lisa) but a different (though not opposite) viewpoint is posed by my Raven-mate Arienne Holland []. It’s a decision only you and your brand can make, but it’s important to give it some thought, particularly in weeks like these.

Wonderful question Virginia, but it hits on something deeper from me. Great comments from Lisa, Phil and Matt, too! I agree content must continue but perhaps with a different tone.

A few months ago I really began to see the industry talk about the practice of “newsjacking.” In the past 6 months, my understanding of anything ending in “jacking” went from carjacking to “newsjacking.” It was an incredibly rapid development. Social media/community managers are desperately fumbling to tune in and resonate with current events using their channels. But I think we are still learning how to do this.

It’s important to tune to the world in times of tragedy but I feel frustrated because what I expect is for brands to use events (tragedies or not) to sent RELEVANT messages to their followers.

The morning after the West Texas explosion a small technology startup offered a sentence of condolence on their page. Wonderful…but why? Do they have an office there? Is their founder from there? It frustrated me because it didn’t seem relevant to their business and they didn’t take the time to make it relevant.

Turning to brands in the business of athletics and companies relevant to the Boston marathon I find Nike’s Facebook page shows they are in tune; not really a condolence offered, but they are “moving forward with the next race in DC.” Puma’s Facebook page doesn’t address the event at all. I find both weird.

Emotional resonance is an opportunity, relevance is how we temper our messages. We need to use our channels with care and awareness. Behind it all, I believe companies are learning (through social media, newsjacking and whatever is next) how to truly participate in the world and in the communities where they do business. For big brands like Nike and Puma, a worldwide stage is a challenge!

I thought Network for Good took an exemplary approach:

Thank you all for bringing these points to the conversation. :)

This is further complicated by social media being a global communication tool for global brands. The company I work for is based in Canada, sells globally, and has the majority of it’s clients in the US.

We did go quiet that afternoon, but should we have? Does an event like this in the US affect our prospects and customers halfway around the world who are still doing business? Would/should we go quiet if something similar happened in a country where we have far fewer clients?

It’s a tough call. There are so many variables, and there’s no real right answer.

What Lisa said.

For me, at least, I was so caught up in the events and tweets regarding the Boston Marathon explosions that all other tweets just seemed trite. Like Lisa, however, this one hit home for me as I live right along the Marathon route.

I don’t think not tweeting about regular business stuff during a tragedy lets the terrorists win.

I was at a digital marketing conference that day and a handful of us sat down to talk about how the conference should respond.

We agreed that you’re very much in a bubble when you’re in a conference, but we generally came to the same conclusion that Virginia and Lisa mentioned – be more thoughtful, but not silent.

Like Lisa, I and some of the speakers and attendees had strong ties to Boston and felt like we had a bit of tunnel vision the rest of that day. It made it difficult to focus on the “fun” of the conference but there was still a lot of great tweetable content being shared.

Andy nails it, as in all things, show respect.

Matt Sullivan

Virginia – in some ways I agree with you, and in others I feel like you couldn’t be more wrong.

As someone that lives & works around Boston, as well as having grown-up in the air, this event literally hit “close to home”. I am regularly at the Sox game on Marathon Monday and then walk to the race route to cheer on the runners. If I had not been travelling this week, it was very likely that I would have been in the area.

You’re right that social media proved to be a driving force of sharing following a chaotic event such as this, allowing those affected to get the information they need for care or action, as well as allowing people to know the status & condition of their loved ones. Between Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s app, many people were able to breathe easier knowing that friends and family were okay.

With all this very important and time sensitive information flying through the channels, it is IMPERATIVE that these channels have very little “noise”. In fact, after the explosions on Monday, the police dispatcher was recorded saying “All units report to Boylston street and stay off the radio. Repeat: stay off the radio.” Those airwaves were needed to convey the most important information at the time. Businesses should view social media the same way.

I was once told to treat social media like a cocktail party. Just like you wouldn’t go into a house party and start shouting about your products/services, you shouldn’t do it on social. Following Monday’s event, it may be better to use the analogy of a wake, not a cocktail party. Think of how unbelievably tacky it would be to tell those in grief about your latest offering, when your only offering should be condolences.

Finally, the excuse of “that would let the terrorists win” is great in the long term, but not for when deciding whether or not to post about sale, promotion, or product. Allow people to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and get back to work.

I was in downtown Boston yesterday and saw plenty of people “getting back to business”. With that being said, there was palpable feeling of tension just under the surface. As the news of an identified suspect broke, it could be seen rippling through the public. We won’t let the terrorists win, business won’t suffer, but it can take a back seat for a day or two.

Just like a wound needs time to heal, businesses need to be a little sensitive. For example, I think Macy’s and the Boston Globe probably should have pulled this ad from today’s paper:


A great question.

I remember during 9/11 the entire company stopped and watched the awful events unfold on TV. After a couple hours to take it all in, the CEO told everyone to get back to work that we shouldn’t just stop and let them win. He cautioned to be considerate with those we called or emailed, but the idea was to get back to work.

I think a brand should change it’s voice after a tragedy, but not muzzle it. People don’t stop going to grocery stores or chatting to neighbors, so likewise a brand shouldn’t just shut down altogether. I do think the conversation should change though and a brand should be mindful of what’s scheduled to be pushed through its social media channels–so as not to appear insensitive.

From a practical stand point, it probably is a wise idea to postpone any major announcements simply because no one will be listening–their attentions will be rightly elsewhere.

To sum up. After a tragedy, a company should show respect and perhaps change its tone, to match that of its customers. You can build you brand by what you don’t say.

My 2 cents.

This is an important post, Virginia. Thanks for opening the discussion.

Courtney Seiter from Raven had a post that said brands should be helpful, be kind or be quiet during a tragedy []. Her post really hit home with me.

I was affected more by the Boston Marathon bombing than I’ve been affected by anything in awhile. I have close ties to the city and the event. I was also in Boston during 9/11 so the panic and the terror brought back a lot of emotion for me. I had a difficult time with a lot of the tweets that were sent out.

I don’t stopping your business-as-usual tweets immediately after a difficult event lets “the terrorists wins”. I think it gives us all a chance to heal. It recognizes that we’re all human. At the same time, I don’t think brands should be required to stop if they feel its best to keep moving. We all have different comfort zones.

In general, I think we all need to be more sensitive to others. Sure, some brands left on their auto-tweets and it made them look silly, if not irresponsible. But there were also brands then ATTACKING those brands, as if that helps the situation or makes anyone else feel better. Jumping on your “responsible social media” soapbox doesn’t help. It doesn’t make anyone feel better or ease anyone else’s pain.

In sensitive times, do as Courtney says, be helpful, be kind or just be quiet.

Totally agree, that is just irresponsible behavior straight up and a new twist where evil wins again over the good just by bringing us down one way or another.

Just imagine if this takes to a whole new level where the majority of us just shot down every time terrorism strikes, that’s just delivering a victory to the devil on a platter, and it’s not helping those who suffer in any way.


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