Brands and tragedy: A new era of etiquette

With social media playing a huge role in both advertising and news, we are at a crossroads.

Photo by Darin Kamnetz

Whether you're of the belief that the world is getting crazier or that the advent of social media just lends a massive magnifying glass to age-old problems, there is one definite truth: The time during and immediately after tragedy are perilous places for brands.

The holiday week of July Fourth was particularly rough for Americans. The country erupted in outrage three consecutive events on July 5th, 6th and 7th concerning the back-to-back homicides of black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police, and the killings of Dallas police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa by an ex-military sniper. Discourse around the complex issue of race heated up on Twitter and Facebook, where feeds resounded with messages of grief, anger, and sadness. 

The outpouring seemingly had little effect on brands, many of which continued their regularly scheduled marketing programs. A quick search around "brands" and "tragedy" on Twitter yielded thousands of results from people upset to see advertising messages during such a sensitive time:

Brands and tragedy

This begs the question: Is there a place for brands in all this chaos? The answer is also complex  and can be compared to the tension felt during 9/11. Even brands like Saturday Night Live resumed production the week after, with Lorne Michaels asking in the cold open, "Can we go back to being funny?" (Mayor Rudy Giuliani memorably retorted, "Why start now?"). 

At Olson, our top social media professionals monitor the news and make recommendations to clients. Beginning with Sterling's death, we sent out a high-priority email asking our brands to agree to pause social media for the day, but as events unfolded in St. Paul and Dallas, our recommendation mounted to more of a strong caution to halt all social media until further notice. 

There are some brands dared to take a stand during that week: 

MN Zoo
MN Zoo shows love the day of the St. Paul homicide of Philando Castile.
Unity Autoworks
Unity Autoworks offers free tail-light fixing for life, as it was reported Castile was pulled over for this reason.
Uber sent users a message when they logged on last week.

The top two instances got pretty amazing reactions -- the zoo, a local organization showing love to its locals and an auto parts business offering to help immediately with free tail light repairs indefinitely. The Uber reaction was mixed, likely because the addition of a peace symbol and statement that they would "think about how to help" probably felt like a passive move for a company of its size.

Now, on this Monday following a heart-wrenching week, we have lifted the warning and asked that our brands slowly return to a normal schedule. But as social media presents these tragedies in near-immediate terms, we as marketers must guide brands through the turmoil as to not offend their customer base and end up on "We can't believe they did that" posts in the press.  And if we're being human and honest, it's just really shitty to see an ad for $200 shoes and "Sale! Sale! Sale!" interspersed throughout very real, heartbreaking messages. Bottom line: People will most likely remember that as crass rather than hit the purchase button. Remaining authentic and empathetic is a safer bet, and for most brands that will mean observing in silence for a determined amount of time. When in doubt, you can't go wrong with that.

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