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5 Tips to Practicing Social Media Sensitivity

Trust me: I’ve done it before.

One day last year I logged into my personal Twitter account and, without bothering to check my feed content first because I was busy, tweeted a joke I’d just thought up. Normal, right? Yep. On most days, it would be fine. But on that day, the Boston Marathon bombings had just occurred.


"Oops" card by Emily McDowell
“Oops” card by Emily McDowell

When I finally heard the terrible news later, boy, did I feel dumb and rude. I immediately logged back in and deleted that tweet, but I can only imagine how out-of-place it must have looked on my followers’ timelines. Luckily, I’m just a person and not a business, and most of my friends are fairly forgiving of my errors. But if my friends had instead been customers? Not so much.

If you’re a brand, the social media stakes are so much higher. For one, you naturally have a bigger public profile than the average citizen. For two, you have a reputation to protect and manage. That’s why it’s vital to remain sensitive to what’s affecting the world — and your audience.

To that end, here are some tips to help prevent your brand from public embarrassment — and a resulting firestorm of criticism from customers — on social media:

Stay aware.

This seems obvious, but it’s all too easy to forget, especially during the typical fast-paced marketing workday. If I’d just bothered to even glance at my social feeds the day of the bombings in Boston, I would have quickly figured out that it wasn’t the right time at all to be in joke mode.

TIP: Making a habit now of briefly checking news headlines once or twice a day could help your brand stay the safe course in the future.

Example: In August 20th Century Fox released its buddy comedy film “Let’s Be Cops” as a real-life standoff between police and protestors unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown. The bad marketing timing couldn’t have been predicted, to be sure, but the uncomfortable connection between promoted tweets and posts about the film and the grim news reports in their feeds prompted many moviegoers to respond: Let’s not.

Be targeted.

Unfortunately, bad things happen all over the world every day. This is why it’s important to know your audience in addition to current events. Something significant could be happening in your core audience’s community that no one else in the state or nation will have heard about. Conversely, something big could be happening nationally that doesn’t affect your unique audience. As with everything, exercise caution and good judgment when you share content.

Check your scheduled content.

I see this happen all the time! If something big goes down, make sure you’re not still sending tweets and posts into the void. Merrily chirping about your product features or special sales deals while the rest of social media is in mourning paints your brand as clueless at best and uncaring and insensitive at worst.

Never try to piggyback your brand on a tragedy.

It’s one thing to express sympathy and quite another to use a tragedy as a launching pad for your own self-promotion. You’ll just end up looking tactless and callous, much like food and cookery brand Epicurious did last year when they awkwardly tried to tie their content in with the Boston Marathon bombings:

"Hey, Boston, feel better about the bombing with SCONES." No. Just, no.
“Hey, Boston, feel better about the bombing with SCONES.” No. Just, no.

Remember: you don’t want your brand associated with bad or sad stuff. If it’s bad or sad, stay away!

These tips are all well and good, but what if the unthinkable happens and you mess up? Don’t panic. Your brand can recover from a gaffe — provided you come at the issue with a good mix of apology, humility, and creativity.

Don’t just delete, treat.

A post is forever. Even if you delete an offending post as soon as possible, it’s probable that someone caught a screen capture of it. And even if no one did, it’s likely some of your clients saw it and you owe them an apology.

One of the best recoveries from a social media screw-up I’ve ever seen involves the Red Cross. It began when one of their staff members posted something that obviously had been meant for a personal account:


Yikes! Getting drunk is not exactly part of the organization’s brand persona. The offending tweet was quickly eighty-sixed and the Red Cross followed up shortly with this smartly composed, mildly funny response:


But the story doesn’t stop there. Afterwards, individuals in the craft brewing community took up a call to donate money to the Red Cross, and some bars and breweries offered a pint of Dogfish Head beer for anyone who could show they’d given blood. The story picked up steam in the news to the point where Hootsuite, the social sharing platform on which the “rogue tweet” was initially posted, pledged a donation to the Red Cross, too. And it’s all because the Red Cross openly acknowledged the mistake coolly and with grace.

I’d call that turning a social media fail into a win, wouldn’t you?

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