In the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris over the weekend, we are reminded yet again that we do not live in a world devoid of tragedy; we are forced to consider the world outside of ourselves and our own individual lives, and remember that we are all an interconnected global community. It is within this spirit that brands must proceed with sympathy and sensitivity in how they approach their social media messaging directly following a humanitarian crisis or global incident. By examining how brands have gotten it wrong, we can hope to learn from their mistakes and navigate these murky waters with finesse and compassion.
We have seen in the past examples of how brands have inappropriately jumped onto the coattails of major international events and have paid a price for it. In 2011, during riots in Cairo, Egypt at the height of the Arab Spring revolution, clothing brand Kenneth Cole attempted to capitalize on the Tahrir Square protests by posting the following tweet: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard about our new spring collection is now available online at…etc.” (Source: Mashable, 2011). Anger over the insensitive tweet caused the company to later remove the tweet and issue an apology.
Alternatively, a brand may attempt to act charitably in support of a cause or event, but if the timing or call to action is not properly crafted, it can come off as callous or self-serving. An example of this also occurred in 2011, following the devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Search engine Bing offered to raise donations for earthquake relief efforts for every retweet they got. Seemingly innocent, however, the public perceived this as self-promotion masked as generosity. The backlash generated an anti-bing hashtag, containing expletives, so I will not repeat it (Source: Business Insider, 2012). Bing wound up donating $100K to the earthquake relief efforts in order to counter the negative attention.
With such negative examples generating so much attention, it is easy to overlook brands who have managed to set the right tone during times of crisis. In the first few days following the terrorist attacks in Paris, brands such as: Google, YouTube, and Skype all demonstrated their sympathies and support for the people of France by changing their logos to the French flag colors, offering free calls to France, or creating tributes to the victims (BrandChannel, 2015). Amazon changed their U.S. homepage with a simple black background, the French flag and the word “Solidarite.” No products, no sales pitches, no promotions, just simple and effective imagery.
So what can brands do to ensure that their messaging directly following an international event or natural disaster is worded and timed appropriately? It is very evident from these cases examined, that brands should not attempt to sell anything or appear to be profiting from a tragedy. For many of us, this is common sense and is stating the obvious, but clearly it bears repeating. It may be beneficial for companies to train their content producers and those responsible for their social media accounts in advance on how to handles these situations. And to certainly have approval processes in place prior to posting tweets or posts on Facebook during highly newsworthy international events. It is also extremely important to gauge when the right time to resume normal marketing activities and messaging following an international event. This is dependent on a number of factors for a brand: proximity to the event, share of audience within the impacted area that may be exposed to your messaging, as well as consideration of cultural norms, customs and use of local languages/dialects if the event is international. It is a decision left up to each individual brand, but it is wise to watch other competitor brands’ activity in the immediate days following an event and to monitor the publics’ response.
Ultimately, it is imperative that brands react appropriately to international events and global tragedies. This is not only important in order to protect their own image and brand equity, but it is crucial that brands demonstrate their humanity. Brands and organizations are composed of people, and it is during times of suffering and tragedy, that we must be reminded of that fact, and to remain unified as people.
Just Media, Inc.