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Marketing Tragedy

  • Amy Hunt 
marketing tragedy half mast

Last week the earth was rocked by the news that a true hero, Nelson Mandela, had passed away at the age of 95. As sad as it is to lose such an amazing icon, we should also be celebrating the fact that he lived a long and incredible life in which he achieved feats that many could have only of dreamt of. It did, of course, send the world of social media into frenzy.

During these moments of tragedy, whether it’s the death of a beloved person or a devastating natural disaster, many companies use the opportunity to their marketing advantage. If done in the right way, in a sensitive manner, it can work. But there are many cases when that light-hearted tweet which seemed fine at the time becomes a deeply regretful action.

Train-wreck Tweets

Twitter seems to be the predominant way in which tragedy is piggy-backed. This is because during, or just after, an event has occurred; the whole world is searching Twitter for updates, stories and opinions. Getting your tweet in there first, and making it a tweet that stands out, is going to improve chances of retweets and new follows. Showing your support in tragic times can help to reinforce that human connection with customers, but only if it’s sincere. Hollow comments are easy to see right through and in the world of social media it doesn’t take long before someone calls you out on it.

There are many awful events that are still fresh in our minds. 9/11 for example is something that will be ingrained in our memory for a very long time; we can all remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard about it. In 2001 when this event took place, there were no social media platforms that could be used to take advantage of it. If there were, someone somewhere would have used the opportunity for promotion, especially seeing as on the anniversary of 9/11 certain brands have done this.

A more recent example is the Boston Marathon bombing. Cooking website Epicurious wanted to “honor” Boston by sending out the following tweets:

epicurious tweets

Come on, who actually believes that that Tweet is sincere?! It’s completely transparent and followers saw straight through it and responded by telling them how “insensitive” and “tacky” they were. There is a way to do social media in times of tragedy and every company needs to have the appropriate strategy in place so that all members of the team are aware of what is ok to post, what isn’t and when to just shut up.

American insurance comparison website,, sent out some pretty distasteful promotional tweets just hours after news broke that Nelson Mandela had died:

insensitive nelson mandela tweets

As you can see, the insensitive tweeter not only sent out messages of false quotes from Mandela, they were actually responding to other user’s tweets of condolence and grief. Of course this prompted a barrage of responses from users who were disgusted by what they were doing, being told that they are “gross” and “should be ashamed”.

twitter reactions

I have absolutely no idea what happened here. A stunt like this is corporate suicide but the tweets are still there and there has been no activity since December 6th. Whether it was hackers, competitors or a crazy member of the social media team let loose, they are going to have some serious explaining to do!

The Best Advice in Times of Tragedy

Jon Loomer came up with The 5 Step Action Plan which is simple enough for any social media team to implement.  The five steps are:

  1. Stop everything – The key word here? EVERYTHING. That means scheduled content and ads. Even if they are not directly related to the event, it could easily be put into the wrong context or just seem insensitive to be talking about your company’s news or new products when a disaster has occurred.
  2. Listen and Observe – Look at what other brands are posting and how people are responding.
  3. Contribute or React – If you can share something sincere and meaningful, do it. Especially if your company is in some way affected. But it’s perfectly fine not to say anything at all.
  4. Evaluate Planned Content – Go through everything that you put on hold and determine what should be changed, delayed or deleted.
  5. Reboot – When the time is right, carry on.

Your Brand is not Human

Although I do think it is acceptable for a brand to offer support and best wishes in times of tragedy (as long as it’s not accompanied by any hashtags or irrelevant/inappropriate links) there is one important thing to remember. Although you might like to humanise your brand through social media, the fact is that it is not human. It’s a brand and the sole purpose of its presence in social media is brand awareness, and to sell.

In this post by Dan Goodswen, he talks about how choosing what not to post is just as important a factor of a social media strategy as choosing what to post. I do agree that unless your company is somehow directly connected, sometimes it’s better just to stay silent and let the important tweets get through; people will have more important things to worry about than your brands message.

Hashtag Hell

Finding trending hashtags and using them in a way that is relevant to your brand and followers can work out really well. If done correctly. One of the worst mistakes a brand can make is to use a hashtag without bothering to research what it actually is.

This tweet, by Celeb Boutique, utilised #Aurora clearly without having any idea of what it was referring to.

celeb boutique tweets

It was, of course being used in tweets about the shooting at a Batman screening in Aurora, Colorado. It would have taken all of 2 seconds to find out why #Aurora was trending and could have prevented causing offence to many Twitter users as well as the inevitable backlash.

In any case, if you are going to post anything regarding a tragedy, just don’t use hashtags!

There are so many ways that a simple Tweet can go wrong but it’s really not that hard to prevent. If something you’re thinking of posting just doesn’t feel quite right, or you’re not sure whether people will find it offensive, it’s probably better to just leave it out.

Amy Hunt

Amy Hunt

Amy started out as a Digital Marketing Executive here at Boom in late 2016, graduating in 2018 to Digital Marketing Client Manager and then to Head of Outreach & Digital PR at the beginning of 2021. Amy works on various digital marketing projects for different clients, focusing on SEO, content marketing and outreach.View Author posts

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