Jan 05

Sometimes tweets can do a lot of good. We’ve seen this happen during times of natural disaster, when a single tweet can alert family members that a relative is safe, or spur on action by people to help, donate or volunteer. Or in areas of the world with political strife: one tweet can help people mobilize in protest, disseminate vital information, or tell people in other parts of the world exactly what is happening to them through words, pictures, and video — often when their government won’t.

new_birdAs the news of the tragedy in Newtown, CT began to unfold, people took to Twitter and Facebook to express their shock, anger and support for those affected by the shooting. Social media became a community that people could turn to, to offer support and collectively try to make sense of it all.

However, some companies scrambled to try to figure out what to do with their scheduled programming. Should marketing campaigns be put on hold? Should a live event on Twitter be canceled or go on as planned?

The results were mixed: some Twitter chats were canceled or rescheduled, while others carried on as planned; some advertising on social media ceased, while other posts and tweets continued. In what is still considered to be an evolving medium, it seems that on social networks — at crucial times — confusion reigns. But the backlash can be swift and sometimes unforgiving.

For example, Kmart had a toy chat scheduled for the afternoon that the news broke. They decided it would be best to cancel it. In tweeting about the cancellation, they used their chat’s chosen hashtag, but also included a hashtag about the Connecticut shooting that was trending at the time.

A spokesperson for Kmart said the use of the promotional hashtag was necessary to inform those who were planning on participating in the chat of the cancellation. However, some have argued that their goal could have been reached by using only the hashtag intended for the chat, not the trending tag as well. By including the trending tag in the tweet, it appeared to some that they were taking advantage of the trend to gain greater exposure for their promotion. According to Kmart, that was not their intent. But unfortunately, it came across that way to some of those who were following the trending topic hashtag.

Some lessons to be learned in similar, difficult situations:

When in Doubt, Don’t Tweet (or Post). Posting about anything business or sales-related in the middle of a tragic event can cause others to question your sensitivity. If you have any doubts about whether or not the timing is appropriate–don’t do it. Rescheduling a chat or delaying posts won’t cost you much in time, but will help you save face. Also, when most people are seeking more information about a breaking story, or trying to cope with the news and are reacting very emotionally to it, they are not likely to be interested in hearing your marketing messages or taking part in a Twitter chat. So why risk it?

Never Hijack a Hashtag. It’s one thing to contribute meaningful content to an existing tag. But don’t combine it with any other hashtag, no matter how well-intentioned. Some have done it by mistake; others wrongly seize an opportunity.

Be In Tune With Your Followers. Take a look at their tweets. Take their emotional temperature. Are they reacting strongly to something? Then make sure your tweets are appropriate and do not offend. No one knows this better now than Kenneth Cole, who sent out a tweet during an uprising in Egypt that not only included a trending hashtag, but also mentioned one of Cole’s products, and seemingly made light of a terrible situation. An apologetic tweet sent two hours later did little to put a positive spin on this gaffe. (Some even wonder whether the designer truly regretted the original tweet, and perhaps even subscribes to the ‘There is no such thing as bad publicity’ theory.)

We’ve all heard the expression, When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When encountering a sensitive situation, the best advice for a business might be to do as everyone else does: turn off the marketing messages and be a human being.

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