Although bad news has always existed, before the COVID pandemic, national tragedies didn’t seem to happen quite as often as they do today. Appropriately, school shootings, for example, would halt entire news and marketing cycles. Social media teams would hit the pause button on their feeds out of respect and acknowledgement of the tragedy.
These days, multiple instances of mass shootings can happen on a daily basis. As of March 27, the Gun Violence Archives shows there have been more mass shootings than days, so far, in the 2023 calendar year.
The most recent, where three children and three staff members died at a school shooting in Nashville, seems to have struck a chord. Protesters flooded the Tennessee state house, asking for action and answers. Students across the country staged a walkout on April 5, urging national gun control measures.
From a communications perspective it may now be more confusing about knowing when to halt social media posting or pitching, due to ongoing daily disasters—natural and man-made. Is it still relevant to participate in a social media pause? How do organizations decide what tragic events are more worthy than others?
Setting up processes for times like these eases everyone’s burdens when bad news lands, especially when everyone is working on numerous projects at any given time.
Kathleen Lucente, founder and CEO at Red Fan Communications, asks her team to conduct a simple daily exercise: continually monitor the news.
“A PR person making calls to the national press on a day when a mass shooting or airplane crash has happened is blatantly showing they aren't keeping up with the news,” Lucente says.
Red Fan has a process that alerts its entire team and clients if they see something that means plans of action should shift.
“Being considerate and tuned in as a brand is essential during a day when national tragedy hits,” Lucente says. “We don't want to get into the habit of becoming numb to these events.”
Asking the Right Questions
Brandon Chesnutt, partner, vp of digital strategy & development, Identity, believes the debate around staying quiet or taking a pause has become clearer in recent years.
“The litmus test for pausing social altogether has changed,” Chesnutt says. “This has been heavily influenced by the expectations now set for what it means to engage online around a sensitive issue.”
Chesnutt says his team members ask themselves some questions before making a recommendation to pause social media. They include:
- Does this tragedy impact our operations?
- Does it impact a geographic area where we have a considerable number of employees or clients/customers?
- Does the issue or tragedy have a direct connection to our industry and/or broader ESG strategy?
- Do we have creative in the market that could be deemed insensitive due to the issue?
If any of the answers to these questions is yes, it’s worth exploring a pause in organic and paid social posts.
“This is a gut-check moment,” he says. “[It] avoids the perception that the company is unaware of the issue, activates a level of monitoring to understand where the conversation is going and [urges organizations to] prepare a more direct statement related to the issue (if necessary).”
Not One-Size Fits All
Chesnutt and Lucente both emphasize that no strategy is one-size-fits all. Every situation is unique. Some organizations may be more closely connected to the event or overarching issue than others, which can catalyze producing a statement or other relevant actions.
“Every company is different and our messages should be aligned with our own company’s mission and values,” Lucente says. “Certain companies taking a stand against guns may make a bold statement. Others may take a more sensitive approach and say, 'our hearts are with …,' while others may choose to focus on internal communications with a note coming from the CEO recognizing that the event occurred…”
Chesnutt also acknowledges that companies should be ready for responses from their audience, which requires investment and planning.
“A few years ago, it wouldn’t be uncommon for an organization to provide a type of drive-by statement, dipping a quick toe into the water when acknowledging a tragedy,” he says. “Today, brands need to be more self-aware of what it means to post about a tragedy, and be ready for their communities to respond and expect further dialogue. Engaging with heavy topics requires a heavy lift, and the expectations can sometimes be that a company goes beyond a simple statement to show support.”
Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her: @buffalogal