When is it okay for a brand to join a social conversation? When is it not okay? Is there some kind of litmus test for brands to determine when and how their commentary might be appropriate and useful, or whether jumping into the dialogue could be harmful—to the brand, or to others?
When Prince passed away this spring, we saw an outpouring of grief across social media. Individuals used their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts to share memories, favorite lyrics, memorable TV and concert appearances, and songs or even albums that shaped their lives for the better. But when brands joined in the conversation, things got tricky.
Some brands blatantly commercialized the tragedy, and there’s little question that the response was inappropriate. Others, I believe, were well meaning but missed the mark.
Minneapolis-based global brands like General Mills and 3M, for example, clearly had every intention of expressing a genuine sense of loss alongside their local community. After all, local businesses seemed to mourn alongside the fans themselves, and no one thought twice about it. But for global audiences who didn’t make the local connection, these tributes rang hollow.
In situations like this, I think it is important for a brand to ask itself: Does it make sense to offer our commentary? Are we providing value, or are we adding to the noise? If there is potential to connect with a community in a meaningful way, then it is appropriate—maybe even noble—to enter the conversation. But if there is potential to come across as capitalizing on a tragic event, it’s better to stay silent.
Exceptions to Every Newsjacking Rule
To me, this brings to mind the tragedy of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Geben runs the social channels for the Columbus Marathon, and we had athletes and volunteers in Boston, as well as our race director.
The Boston news was everywhere. Obviously, the running community was paying attention. We thought, “What do we do?” We decided to post something, but we were very sensitive about the content. This was a tragedy, after all, and while our intent was not to capitalize on it, our people—our athletes—were talking about it. So we essentially created a hub where members of this community could support and connect with each other in a safe space. There was a natural tie for us, and we were able to comment in a way that didn’t feel commercialized or opportunistic.
If In Doubt, Sit It Out
Did brands deserved backlash after posting tributes to Prince? I’d say it varies case-by-case, and of course we don’t know every back story. But the question certainly illustrates the importance of thoughtfulness in our response.
Regardless of your well-meaning intentions, your audience may or may not understand the connection that inspires your commentary. In the case of the Boston Marathon, our connection was very clear and our instinct was that the commentary did not feel opportunistic. Even so, we had to think through the repercussions of our actions and make sure we were okay with facing potential backlash.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t or shouldn’t say anything when a tragic news story arises—you just have to be thoughtful about it ahead of time. By all means, allow your brand to express itself genuinely. But if your brand finds itself in a position like this, and you catch yourself second-guessing just how genuine your contribution to the conversation might be, listen to your instincts and sit this one out.