When Tragedy Strikes, Does Social Media Provide the Human Touch?

Melissa MonahanBy Melissa Monahan, Senior Vice President, Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications

Watching the news coverage of the tornados in Oklahoma and the subsequent rebuilding efforts, it is hard to believe that once again our nation was witness to a major tragedy. It seemed only yesterday here in Boston we were experiencing the devastation of the Marathon bombings. Clearly two very different situations, but looking back over the past several months from Newtown to Hurricane Sandy, I am left to wonder how much can we take as a nation and whether there are lessons learned in terms of how we process and deal with them as a broader community?

I will leave the analysis and resilience of our nation’s psyche to more qualified people, but one thing I have personally observed is that despite the inherent human devastation that comes from these events, there seems to be a burgeoning addiction to communicating around catastrophy and an emotional need for many to be part of the conversation.

I realize that sounds odd but how many of us have been glued to our screens (TV, phone, iPad, computer) during these episodes thirsting for more information and frustrated when we see the same reports or updates over and over? Blogs, Facebook and Twitter feeds become overrun with people sharing experiences or personal connections and offering support, solace and comfort to those affected. For many, this becomes an immediate connection point and fosters a camaraderie that is infectious because it represents something good springing from something so awful.

This is all good and positive, but I also feel like these efforts are filling some emotional void in people—like we are part of something bigger, something that we can really connect with people about that we wouldn’t have before. I admit to feeling that way, especially after the Marathon bombings and ensuing manhunt. For me, my addiction to Twitter went beyond needing updates on the latest news; I wanted to see what others were thinking and make sure I wasn’t the only one feeling the way I was. I also received tweets from people I had never met except on Twitter asking me if I was okay and sending love to my city. And I won’t lie; it felt good to know that people cared about me and what was happening here.

Maybe that sounds a bit self-absorbed, but I don’t believe I am the only one who experiences the thrill of someone RTing a pithy observation or anecdote. Social media breaks down barriers between social strata, location, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Celebrities are now tweeting messages to us minions and I think there is an attraction to that that can fuel our internalization of these tragedies and the need to be a continuous part of something bigger.

I don’t view this as a bad thing but there is a point where one’s participation and musings during these tragedies on social media channels walks a fine line between wanting to be part of the conversation and being the center of the conversation. While Facebook and Twitter in particular were basically created to share your life and ideas, I think the easiest way to lose your friends/follower/audience is to be too self-absorbed too much of the time. Individuals aren’t the only ones at risk for this, organizations are too. Buzzfeed recently did a fantastic recap of the worst social media fails by companies.

Based on their case studies and some others that I have observed, there are few easy things to remember when communicating as an individual or an organization during a tragic event:

  • Immediately turn off your auto/scheduled tweets that highlight a product, event or blog post unrelated to this event.
  • Humor is tough to convey through the written word, never mind in 140 characters or a Facebook post so err on the side of caution and don’t do it. If you do, be prepared for the backlash.
  • Especially in the early stages of a tragedy don’t make it political. It is normal to want to blame someone/something when an unthinkable tragedy occurs but politicizing a tragedy—especially when events are so fresh—can be seen as extremely callous and could cost you credibility and followers.
  • If you are going to do something for people impacted by said tragedy do it for the right reasons and not simply to get PR. After the Marathon bombings, some companies hit the mark with their efforts. In particular, I was struck at the email by Boston-based Rue La La to members. It was timely, simple, not self-promotional and direct.

However, the intentions of some companies in the weeks following seemed a bit disingenuous. One clothing store in Boston sent out a hastily put together email promising 10% of proceeds to the OneFund during a small window of time (i.e. a few hours on a Sunday) almost a month after the bombings. I don’t doubt that these people truly cared about the victims and the impact on our city but when I got that email it left the impression that they wanted to be associated with the OneFund but were hoping either to drive business during their slowest period and/or knew that nobody typically comes during that time so their donation would be minimal. Either way, people shouldn’t be left wondering about your intentions.

Social media truly has the power to bring us together in times when we need each other the most. From locating family amidst chaos to gathering resources, social media can remind us of our collective humanity. And while sharing our experiences at the right time can help forge connections and help others cope, sometimes it is good to know when to just listen.

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