Something horrible happened yesterday in America.
In the midst of the blood and terror, there were the heros we all hoped we would see: runners who kept on running to the hospital to give blood, first responders taking control of a chaotic scene, strangers opening their homes to stranded marathoners.
And then there were the rest of us.
Depending on your social media circles yesterday, you may have seen uplifting messages of hope or political and religious infighting or ponderous discussions about whether or not to pause scheduled social media posts.
When something like the Boston Marathon bombings happens, we all have feelings, but most of us don’t have an outlet for them – we can’t all go there and help. That leaves social media in a strange place in times of crisis — connected but often helpless. Even if you’re used to talking all day on Twitter and Facebook as a social media marketer, it’s hard to know how to react.
We don’t have all the answers, either. No one does. But there are a few places to start.
First, focus on perspective and empathy. Stop being a marketer for a minute and absorb what’s going on as a human. What’s the latest news from the scene? Where is the tragedy? How significant is the damage? How is it affecting the world, and your audience?
If your Twitter stream is filled with nothing but news of this event, that’s a good sign to stop what you’re doing (including canceling all scheduled posts for the day) and take some time to process.
After that: be helpful, be kind or be quiet.
Now that you have halted business-as-usual marketing, it’s time to figure out what, if anything, you can say or do to help.
For Google, that was opening its Person Finder tool to help locate friends and family. YouTube helped by creating a playlist dedicated to official information about the explosions. Newspapers lifted their paywalls for Boston Marathon news. Site like VentureBeat and Search Engine Land compiled lists of resources.
For marketers specifically, one small way to help is to remind your audience to pause or cancel scheduled social media posts.
It may seem like the most trivial thing in the world, but reminders like these help clear the airwaves during a crisis so people can find the information they need faster.
For your brand, the way to help might be to share important resources via social media, collect money or donations, or use your marketing skills to shine a light on those who are doing so. Maybe it’s sending a dozen pizzas to Bostonians through Reddit’s Random Acts of Pizza.
Don’t issue a press release about how much you did to contribute.
Don’t make your contribution hinge on Facebook likes or shares.
Others may not take the same approach you have, or may forget a scheduled post and look foolish for doing so. Your instinct may be to vent some of your anger and frustration by telling them what you think they did wrong.
Try not to.
Now is the time for grace, not shaming.
Business is international, and the world is big. Some regions see tragedy like America did yesterday on nearly a daily basis.
Also, mistakes happen.
Yesterday, 45 minutes before we first heard about the explosions, one of my colleagues received this webinar invitation:
Later, as she was scanning her inbox, she said: “Oh, that’s unfortunate timing. I feel badly for whomever sent that out.”
Then, about two hours after the explosions, the same colleague was catching up on Facebook posts and came across this Instagram post from a friend on vacation, who clearly had not heard the news.
She cringed, instantly. She forgave, instantly. No one intended to be crass or make light of a terrible situation. Real people were involved in both cases.
Why, then, do we judge brands so harshly, when real people are still the ones behind them in those coincidences of bad timing?
If you can’t be helpful or kind during a time of crisis, be quiet for a while.
We may have feelings and we may have a platform, but we may not have something worth saying in times like these.
In times of tragedy Twitter should go into Quaker mode. Shut up or be meaningful.
— Mike Monteiro (@Mike_FTW) April 15, 2013