By Ryan McBurney
May 02, 2013

When Tragedy Strikes, Should Brands Engage?

After dark moments such as the Boston Marathon bombings, we all feel an overwhelming sense to connect and experience our emotions together. People look for opportunities to come together, unite, and support those that are suffering. And as seen in many instances these days, it’s social media that has given people the appropriate forums to show their support and act accordingly.

But where do brands fit into this equation? What is their place in the healing and relief process?

I was originally hesitant to write a blog post on such a sensitive topic. It’s a tough concept to communicate properly due to its many different emotional layers. But this all changed after Levi showed me an innocent-yet-puzzling Facebook post made by a brand (a brand we shall not mention out of respect) early last week that brought up some interesting questions.

In the post, the brand told its Facebook fans that it shut off their Facebook content and interactions for the week following the Boston bombings to show respect and honor to those suffering. It was a touching gesture on the surface, but when Levi and I really looked deep into the situation at hand, we were left scratching our heads.

Why would a brand that boasts over a Million fans see going “silent” as the best way to honor those affected by such a tragic event? Weren’t they compelled to act?

Why didn’t this brand leverage their massive audience for the good of people in need? For fundraising? For awareness? This brand had the unique opportunity to profile runners, victims, policeman, etc., yet still decided to go silent.

We saw countless opportunities being wasted. Opportunities that would have not only helped suffering families, but also helped people further come together and act for the sake of closure and appreciation.

Which brought us to these questions:

  • How Should brands act after a tragedy like the Boston bombings?
  • With their massive audiences and Klout, do big brands have a responsibility to act? And if so, what should they do?

This is certainly a tricky question for many different reasons. With any crisis or tragedy, people are vulnerable and sensitive. It’s important for brands and marketers to always be aware and respect people’s feelings in times of distress, no matter what.

To gain some insights into this difficult topic, we thought it would be best to first take a look at various case studies, both good and bad, as to how brands have engaged in social media in times of past crisis and tragedy. From here we would pull lessons learned and hopefully see a popular trend in regards to brand behaviors.

Here are some interesting examples we found from the recent tragedies of Sandy Hook and Hurricane Sandy.

The Good

America Express

American Express was adored by its fans after they used their social media networks to communicate their customer service efforts to help those in need after Hurricane Sandy struck.



The social media giant made a seemingly simple gesture to the city of Boston, but it was a gesture that had profound effects across the social media world. Twitter played a role in the recovery from these events by donating a promoted trend to act as a rallying cry for support of the city of Boston. The #OneBoston hashtag was at the top of Twitter’s list of worldwide trends for almost a week  (which would have otherwise cost a company $200k), and it played a large role in driving donations to The One Fund.


Almost immediately after Hurricane Sandy, Citi used social media to express their intent to donate $1 Million to the Red Cross relief efforts. Their social posts also gave their followers the appropriate avenue in which to donate as well.


Duracell helped people stay connected by setting up charging stations in Manhattan.  During the aftermath of the storm, the Duracell Facebook page was packed with information about the locations of the company’s power and responder stations that were scattered across NYC. The value that this Facebook page gave to people in need was immense.


While it may be best to spur action and support following a tragedy, many companies have done well to take the day of the tragedy as a time to quiet their account and let people reflect. Vitamix is a fantastic example of this.

Belvedere Vodka

The same can be said for Belvedere Vodka. There are many good examples of companies shutting off the day of the tragedy, to show their respect for people in need.

The Bad


This was a horrific use of Twitter. Just a day after the Boston Marathon bombings, Epicurious sent out tweets that were astonishingly self-serving and insensitive. These tweets have since been deleted.


Not only was this tweet an incredibly insincere and self-serving tweet during a time of fear and distress, Gap also tweeted this as they checked in on Foursquare to Frankenstorm Apocalypse. This light-hearted approach to Hurricae Tragedy rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

Mutual of Omaha

I assume this was a scheduled tweet that was not stopped the day of Sandy Hook. Regardless, it’s a great example of when a normal tweet looks terrible and insensitive during moments of mourning.


Here’s a great example of when hashtags go horribly, horribly wrong. I assume it was a typo or cut-and-paste error, but it was still unacceptable to those who saw the tweet.

American Apparel

Yikes.  American Apparel received major backlash for sending out this email (seen above) during the height of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction. I don’t even know what to say. They deserved all the negative press for this one.

Lessons Learned

First let’s talk immediate reactions.

The examples seen above painted a clear picture as to what brands should and shouldn’t do immediately after of during a tragedy/crisis. Here are the lessons we took from our research that may help you form your brand’s immediate response strategy after a tragedy strikes:

  • Brands should immediately pause upcoming posts on all platforms after hearing about a tragedy or crisis. This includes auto-tweet tools and paid social media ads. This will help to avoid promoted posts/tweets being in news feeds.
  • Know your brand and your audience. If your brand is not related to a tragedy, and if you’re audience is not affected, sometimes it’s best to be respectful and keep your social content quiet until more information is released.
  • But take the size of your audience into account. If you have a large audience, a sincere, non-promotional post about an event may help to connect people together and start a healthy conversation about relief efforts.
  • Always be sincere. Any post with a marketing or political agenda, no matter how polite, is distasteful and inappropriate.
  • If you do write something, keep it short. People want to see the latest news and possibly time-sensitive details, not an overly long post by a brand.
  • Scan your brand’s content for the next couple of weeks for messaging pieces that may be too light-hearted or deemed insensitive. There is no such thing as being over-cautious in these times of national unrest.
  • Bring your communications team together. Plan out future plans or efforts, if any, around the tragedy and your audience. For an event like the Boston bombings, I would give people at least a week before returning to regularly scheduled content.
  • The other lessons learned are far more complicated and intensive… but these are the ones that really struck a chord with me. These are the lessons around empowerment and becoming a resource.

In vulnerable times like these, some brands have the unique opportunity to leverage their social media channels and large audiences to empower its people to act and help heal. It’s an opportunity that is often unrealistic or missed by brands, but it’s an opportunity that provides fantastic potential for brands and its online communities. Citi and Twitter both did incredible jobs at giving people the tools to follow through on donations and support.

As seen above, it was quite remarkable to see select brands go out of their way to become a valuable resource to people in time of need. American Express and Duracell proved to be valuable resources to their audiences during a time of need. Their social media and communication efforts allowed people opportunities that were otherwise unavailable, and brought light (literally) to people at their darkest time. These were efforts that have not been forgotten by their fans, and won’t be for a long time to come. If brands are going to act and engage in the aftermath of a tragedy, they must disregard all self-serving interests and dedicate themselves to being a resource.


The events that happened in Boston last week are not to be forgotten anytime soon.

Not by Bostonians. Not be Americans. And not by the countless number of innocent civilians who were left feeling vulnerable after a violent act struck such a peaceful and joyous occasion.

It was Patriots day, and it was a day celebrated around the world to crown the achievements of those amazing runners who worked endlessly to get themselves physically ready for what was and is the peak of human fitness. It was supposed to be a celebration. It was supposed to be a family and friend gathering to applaud each member’s commitment. It was supposed to be perfect. Instead, it was a day that was taken from us.

There is, however, a silver lining. People came together, once again, and showed humanity’s amazing power to connect and heal.

If your brand is positioned with a unique opportunity to help victims in the aftermath of this tragedy, then we say go for it. If you have the chance to be a resource or empower, don’t be like the brand mentioned earlier in the post. Be courageous and act. Be human. Be the brand that will make your audience proud. Show your support and empower your online communities to make positive differences in people’s lives.

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