In the Midst of Tragedy, Scream at Brands.

Monday’s horrific act of terror at the finish line of the Boston Marathon produced an appropriate collective shudder across Facebook and Twitter. As people absorbed the news and expressed feelings of disbelief, support, sadness and grief, most turned to the understandable human impulse to make sure loved ones were safe – that everyone you care about is okay.

Almost simultaneously, however, the scolds scurried out from under their rocks to preach the proper use of social media in the immediate aftermath of a national tragedy. Much of the scolding impulse gets directed at brands.

Brands, the thinking goes, should not engage in anything so crass as marketing when Americans are suffering. Moreover, because concerned citizens are using social media to distribute important information (even if it is often inaccurate or false), the scolds believe channels such as Twitter and Facebook should be left open for crisis communications and expressions of support.

The scolds have a point. But also: give me a break.

Because most big brands have sophisticated campaigns where targeted tweets and Facebook newsfeed posts are scheduled in advance and automatically distributed, it’s nearly impossible to immediately shut down a campaign in the aftermath of something like the Boston bombings. Brand marketing managers must first be made aware of an unfolding tragedy and then be able to assess its scope and impact. If the news at hand is of a sufficient scale that would justify pausing all active campaigns, they then must work through co-workers, third-party agencies and media companies to effectively hit the pause button. 

This doesn’t happen instantly and can even take several hours in heavily matrixed organizations where managers don’t have unilateral authority to pull active campaigns from rotation.  But even if they could immediately respond to an event like the Boston bombings or the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school shooting, should it be the establish protocol to shut down all marketing campaigns for an appropriate period of silence? 

Though the finger-waggers’ preaching tones of righteous indignation mostly stick in my craw, they have, as I’ve said, a point.  In most cases where the nation’s attention is seized by an event, it makes sense for marketers to calibrate their campaigns to its mood. In the instance of the Boston bombings and Newtown massacre, pausing usual campaigns and then taking to social media channels to offer support or condolences makes sense. Or simply going quiet for 12-to-24 hours is a good bet. Where brands can do more, they should.

For instance, AirBNB organized a campaign almost immediately after the bombings occurred to connect people impacted by the event and without local accommodations to people who could offer housing. Virgin immediately announced it would wave flight change fees for those affected by the tragedy. I’m sure there were many other instances of brands stepping up where they were able to offer real support or assistance.

But while brands can and should read the mood of the country during moments of national tragedy and act accordingly, it would also be great if the scolds would focus their considerable energy on those who’ve been injured. Most brands get to the right posture; they just need the chance to get there. Behind every brand is a group of people – actual human beings – who are absorbing the impact of breaking news like everyone else, worrying about those impacted and those they love.

Like all human beings, shock and horror has an immediate numbing effect on the people behind marketing campaigns. In most cases, they get around to doing the right thing.

FIVE THôT columnist DEREK GORDON is a marketing and sales exec with more than 20 years success in integrated marketing and sales strategy and management. He is the Chief Marketing and Sales Officer for Pathbrite.

Girl Crying image courtesy of Shutterstock

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