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How to Communicate on Social Media When Tragedy Strikes: Experts Weigh In

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How to Communicate on Social Media When Tragedy Strikes: Experts Weigh In

Tara M. Clapper
How to Communicate on Social Media When Tragedy Strikes: Experts Weigh In

Every social media marketer or strategist must consider the inevitability of disaster. We're not just talking about internal PR crises, but local, regional, national and world-shaping events. From an increase in mass shootings in the United States to a steady number of terrorist events worldwide, it's time to think about how these tragedies affect our social media presence and the perception of our brand on a daily basis.

How should you prepare and respond when these events now happen so often?

Amount of terrorist attacks worldwide. Source: StatistaAmount of terrorist attacks worldwide. Source: Statista

These events occur with alarming frequency, accelerated by the 24/7 news cycle, citizen journalism and the constant availability of information on social channels, making it all the more necessary to respond (or not) appropriately and quickly.

In our own discussion about how our international brand should handle such common events with sensitivity and respect, SEMrush Social Media Manager Becky Shindell and I decided to reach out to some social media experts for their views on this difficult topic.

Here's what the experts had to say about how brands should handle tragedies:

What is the procedure for automated social media during a crisis?

The experts agree that immediately reevaluating any scheduled or automated messages should be one of a brand's immediate, appropriate first steps to any tragic event.

Matthew Ray

"My advice is to disable any automated social media. I am not really a fan of it in general, since the automation process really kills the 'social' part of the engagement. This is especially true during a crisis. When there is any kind of crisis, people want to know they are communicating with a real person – in real time. It's a necessity." – Matthew Ray, Principal, Co-Founder & Creative Director at ChatterBlast Media | @matropolis

Karen Masullo

"For me, the best lesson to address automated messages was the message issued by a surf shop on the morning of the Japan Tsunami; the regular, chipper morning greeting of something like 'Surf’s Up, where are we surfing today?' was – while in no way ill-intentioned, received very poorly. We always say don’t let your first response become the second crisis." – Karen Masullo, Chief Intelligence Officer, EVP Business Intelligence & Social Media at Firestorm | @OPCGal

Nathan Ellering

"This may depend on the crisis, your industry, those experiencing the crisis first-hand, your followers, and the content you’re sharing. For example, if a crisis such as a shooting happens and you had planned on sharing a blog post about capitalizing on current events as a marketer that day, it makes sense to remove that blog post and all social media messages associated with it from your publishing schedule. A framework to help you in this situation is to ask yourself, 'Is it possible for someone to misunderstand my intention behind sharing this content in light of recent events?' If your answer is even close to yes, remove that content from your social media queue." – Nathan Ellering, Content Marketing Lead at CoSchedule | @njellering

Cecily Kellogg

"I rarely automate. My clients tend to be smaller with little in the way of assets, so we tend to work much more on the fly. Rarely I'll automate a week or so ahead. My procedure varies by client: some clients prefer to stop posting during any sort of crisis, while others prefer to only stop if it's directly related to their business (for instance, a client of mine specializing in products for college students stops all posting if there is a shooting on a college campus). Otherwise we play it by ear. I will say this: one of the benefits of my still using Twitter regularly (I have tweetdeck open on all day with many columns) is being quickly if not instantly alerted when something happens. People are trashing Twitter lately, but it's literally the best way to keep my ear to the ground out there." – Cecily Kellogg, Writer & Content Strategy Director at Double Good Media | @cecilyk

Kathleen Garvin

"The procedure for automated social media during a crisis is no automation – pause your scheduled social media postings. Unless you’re in the news industry, take a break and work on something else; real life is more important than your planned social media strategy." – Kathleen Garvin, Editor, Analytics at The Penny Hoarder | @itskgarvin

Jo Trizila

"Many times in crisis situations, brands either say way too much or say nothing at all.  Know your messages/statement inside and out. Practice. Practice. Practice." – Jo Trizila, CEO & President, TrizCom PR & Pitch PR | @jotrizila

Tracy Willis

"The best thing to do is to stop all automation, ESPECIALLY automated responses. The automated responses can come off as extremely insincere and often offensive." – Tracy Willis, Content Strategist at N2Q Consulting | @tracywillis_

What is the protocol for international companies during a crisis that may more significantly affect only one location?

While our experts' opinions differ on how international companies should handle a crisis, they agree that clear leadership and installed procedures are necessary. Be clear about who (or which office) makes the call on social media communication.

Kathleen Garvin

"If you have multiple offices, I’d defer to the one where the incident took place. While news travels fast and technology offers a window into what’s happening, it’s best to let the people who are experiencing the event first-hand handle it and determine the best course of action.

With that said, it’s a good idea to have an agreed-upon process in place across all offices." – Kathleen Garvin, Editor, Analytics at The Penny Hoarder | @itskgarvin

Matthew Ray

"Follow the lead of your top team.  Don't try to jump into the spotlight until everyone has an idea what is happening and how it is happening."  – Matthew Ray, Principal, Co-Founder & Creative Director at ChatterBlast Media | @matropolis

Tracy Willis

"First and foremost, make sure all of your employees are safe. Take down all scheduled posts and wait for information. You don't want to post based on speculation, so wait for official statements to come out." – Tracy Willis, Content Strategist at N2Q Consulting | @tracywillis_

What type of crisis merits a response?

Of all the questions we asked the experts, this one got the most 'it depends' replies. Brand responses to major crises depends on a number of factors such as location(s) and industry. 

Nathan Ellering

"This is also very much tied to the crisis itself, your industry, and your brand.

For example, if a fire burns a museum and you are a museum curator in a neighboring community, you may want to share your sincere condolences with your friends who were unfortunate enough to have experienced that specific crisis. However, if you’re a chemist who works in a laboratory in a different country, that crisis may not make sense for you to respond to.

Every crisis is extremely situational, so you may need a framework to help you know when to respond. Something as simple as asking yourself, 'Will those experiencing this crisis appreciate our outreach?' may help you determine the best approach." – Nathan Ellering, Content Marketing Lead at CoSchedule | @njellering

Tracy Willis

"Typically it is best to stay quiet during a crisis unless it is something that impacts your clients. If you feel you must add to the conversation, it is important to be respectful and offer your condolences if appropriate. Be sure to consider your company's culture before posting anything. What causes are important to your company? What language is appropriate to use? Remember, it's always important to stay on brand." – Tracy Willis, Content Strategist at N2Q Consulting | @tracywillis_

Matthew Ray

"If the crisis is directly related to your institution or business, you need to probably work carefully with your public relations team to ensure a proper on message response. The closer the crisis to you, the more you will have to carefully consider your engagement strategy. If you are the mayor of a city where a shooting has happened, obviously you will need to post a thought-out statement. But, if you are a restaurant in the city that has just experienced a shooting – and it wasn't in your restaurant – then you can probably choose to be sympathetic but silent. But, if the crisis is one of a large scale – like the recent shootings in Orlando, where the whole world is mourning – it's appropriate to share a heartfelt message." – Matthew Ray, Principal, Co-Founder & Creative Director at ChatterBlast Media | @matropolis

Kathleen Garvin

"This is a tricky situation in an increasingly complicated world. My advice would be to remain quiet unless 1. it’s close to home, or 2. it would seem weird to have your voice absent from the situation (i.e. your company or industry is directly related to the crisis).

I recently talked about the dangers of news-jacking with SEJ Features Editor Danielle Antosz on the Marketing Nerds podcast. Remember: If your post could be a distraction, hold back from adding to the conversation. And never try to turn it into a marketing opportunity." – Kathleen Garvin, Editor, Analytics at The Penny Hoarder | @itskgarvin

What steps can social media managers take to prevent posting something inappropriate during a time of crisis?

According to the experts, preventing a social media faux pas is always better than potentially saying the wrong thing or diving into a topic before you know enough about it. Let's see what preventive actions the recommend.

Nathan Ellering

"Keep up with recent events. Develop frameworks to help you understand when you’d like to respond to a crisis; these can be as simple as a series of questions you ask yourself." – Nathan Ellering, Content Marketing Lead at CoSchedule | @njellering

Tracy Willis

"The best thing to do is to stop posting and listen. This allows you to be in tune with what is going on, how people are talking about it and determine when to resume your conversation with your audience." – Tracy Willis, Content Strategist at N2Q Consulting | @tracywillis_

Kathleen Garvin

"Ask yourself two questions: Is our comment sincere? Will people expect us to comment on it? If the answer is no to both, then don’t comment on it."– Kathleen Garvin, Editor, Analytics at The Penny Hoarder | @itskgarvin

When is it appropriate to resume your typical posting?

Our experts agreed that the answer to this question is especially dependent upon the situation. If the tragedy affects the community you're serving, you and your brand may be expected, if not obligated, to address it and provide updates. Generally, our experts feel it's permissible to wait a couple of days before resuming regular posting.

While it's advisable to have a 'crisis playbook,' social media professionals need to critically examine each crisis on a case-by-case basis.

Cecily Kellogg

"Depending on the nature of the crisis, I typically being posting within a day or two." – Cecily Kellogg, Writer & Content Strategy Director at Double Good Media | @cecilyk

Nathan Ellering

"This is yet another question that a framework can help you respond. It may depend on the gravity of the situation, but this decision is ultimately up to you as the brand.

A question for your framework could be, 'When will my followers expect the kind of content from me that I’ve removed from my social media posting schedule in light of this crisis?' If your gut tells you that today is too soon, it’s too soon." – Nathan Ellering, Content Marketing Lead at CoSchedule | @njellering

Matthew Ray

"Totally situational. Is this a 9/11 crisis, or a more personal one? If your community needs updates or more information, you cannot go dark. You have to keep talking through the crisis with well thought out messaging. There is no set time, but it is okay to be silent for a bit."  – Matthew Ray, Principal, Co-Founder & Creative Director at ChatterBlast Media | @matropolis

Have you ever had a bad or a good experience as a social media manager dealing with a crisis?

A few of our experts were candid about whether they've dealt with such crises and how it went for them. They advise careful planning to prevent panic (for both yourself and your clients). 

Nathan Ellering

"Because I’ve used frameworks, gut instinct, and rely on help from my team, I’ve never had issues with social media and crises." – Nathan Ellering, Content Marketing Lead at CoSchedule | @njellering

Matthew Ray

"Yes. Both. I'd prefer not to go into the details so me and my clients don't have to relive it! But, I can say that if you acknowledge that a crisis CAN happen, and prepare for it – you will be WAY better off than if you stick your head in the sand. Have a plan, have a system for approval and management, have the write content prepared to deploy. Be prepared! 

In fact, sometimes a crisis can be a really trail-by-fire for a company or brand. During natural disasters, utilities and government entities that are prepared to handle social media questions, concerns and needs are going to shine. They will earn the affection of their communities by being there for them in a crisis. It's like Mr. Rogers said: 'Look for the helpers!' You want your brand to be a helper." – Matthew Ray, Principal, Co-Founder & Creative Director at ChatterBlast Media | @matropolis

Cecily Kellogg

"Blessedly, my clients have been responsive to my recommendations, so my experiences have been good." – Cecily Kellogg, Writer & Content Strategy Director at Double Good Media | @cecilyk

Our experience at SEMrush

Reflecting on what worked and what didn't is a key part of the agile process we use in the U.S. Marketing Department at SEMrush. As we implement agile marketing, we've come to see how critical it is to evaluate results after a project or campaign is complete. This is especially true for spontaneous messaging and newsworthy responses such as social media during a crisis. 

Which brands do you think handle these situations well? Which ones don’t?

Matthew Ray

"Southwest is the best airline on social. They really know how to calm down irate customers, and to be proactive in messaging.

Do you remember the time JCPenney was accused of making a Hitler tea kettle? That was bad, but their social team really worked over time to keep it from being a brand breaker." – Matthew Ray, Principal, Co-Founder & Creative Director at ChatterBlast Media | @matropolis

Kathleen Garvin

"The best brands handle it with tact; the ones that don’t end up on the 'companies that botched it' lists at the end of the year. If you can’t comment on a tragic event without slipping your product or service into the messaging, just say no." – Kathleen Garvin, Editor, Analytics at The Penny Hoarder | @itskgarvin

Cecily Kellogg

"These days I feel like everyone is scrambling in this area. Brands that are willing to take a stand on important issues – such as the recent legalization of gay marriage – I think do really well responding to events. Brands that choose neutrality all too often end up appearing indifferent, which I don't think is wise."– Cecily Kellogg, Writer & Content Strategy Director at Double Good Media | @cecilyk

Do you have any other advice or thoughts in regards to dealing with crisis on social media?

Michael A. Stelzner

"Not every problem in the world is something that should force marketers to hard stop their social efforts. I think it only matters when it’s related to your audience. Thus if you are marketing to people in a city and that city has a crisis, consider a pause in your campaigns. It’s very unreasonable to think that we need to always be on high alert. Let’s make this simple. If you think 'now is not the time,' then pause.” – Michael A. Stelzner, CEO & Founder, Social Media Examiner | @Mike_Stelzner

Cecily Kellogg

"I believe we are in a critical time — an ongoing crisis — relating to race and gender issues, and social media managers need to study the concept of 'woke' and also become aware of the many landmines around gender and sexuality. Social media managers MUST be educated or they will fail. You have to look no farther than Snapchat's two recent messes with the Bob Marley black face for 4/20 and the recent yellow face filter to see how this can impact a company. If I was running an internal department and not my own business, I would do extensive training around issues of race and gender to avoid offense and causing a social media firestorm."– Cecily Kellogg, Writer & Content Strategy Director at Double Good Media | @cecilyk

Karen Masullo

"Effective media communications – and this includes social media – is a crucial element in emergency/crisis management and should assume a central role in disaster preparedness. During Superstorm Sandy, a major utility led in best practice because they had practiced; they were organized and ready, and their responses saved people’s lives.

Proper planning, training and communications establishes public confidence in the ability of an organization to lead in a crisis and to bring about a satisfactory conclusion. Effective media communication is also integral to the larger process of information exchange aimed at eliciting trust and promoting understanding of the relevant issues or actions.

To assure your team meets the goals of communication, train, train, train, and focus on the following simple media communication goals." – Karen Masullo, Chief Intelligence Officer, EVP Business Intelligence & Social Media at Firestorm | @OPCGal

Matthew Ray

"Be honest, be direct, and if you are in the wrong – be apologetic. Handle it quickly and be confident. Also remember: every crisis passes. Today's social media scandal is NOT tomorrow's. Our news cycle is so small these days, people move on quickly, as long as you make good on your promises and clean up the cause of the crisis." – Matthew Ray, Principal, Co-Founder & Creative Director at ChatterBlast Media | @matropolis

Jo Trizila

"You have to practice/test your crisis social communication plan. Think of a fire drill. You have an exit plan that is circulated throughout the office, you practice your evacuation route a couple of times a year and you revise accordingly. This is how brands should think of their crisis plan. Unfortunately, many businesses pay for a top notch plan and then put it on a shelf and don’t ever look at it until they need it." – Jo Trizila, CEO & President, TrizCom PR & Pitch PR | @jotrizila

Do you have any other questions or comments for the experts? Please leave a comment!

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Tara M. Clapper is Content Development Specialist at Express Writers and Senior Editor at The Geek Initiative, a website celebrating women in geek culture. Tara is a prolific content creator and an accomplished editor, having written and edited thousands of blog posts, small business websites, and other inbound marketing content through the course of her career. Tara enjoys blogging about SEO copywriting, content management, corporate culture, personal branding, networking and LinkedIn. She has over a decade of experience in digital publishing. Connect with her on Twitter @irishtara
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Kathleen Garvin
Thanks to Becky and Tara for including me in this round up! It's great to read the other responses, which I nodded along with while scrolling through the article. (How often does THAT happen?)

I think Karen's quote in the header image sums it up best: "Don’t let your first response become the second crisis."
Karen Masullo
Kathleen Garvin
Thank you Kathleen! I enjoyed this process, and I too did the head nod thing. I once asked our COO at Firestorm who our greatest competitor is (we are a Crisis Management firm) and he said "Denial." I find that profound to this day.

Thanks again all. Great read.

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