When disaster strikes, social media comes alive.

Twitter feeds were filled with news updates, and expressions of sadness, shock and anger, when two explosions went off at the Boston Marathon last month.

Mixed in with those thoughts were occasional business tweets. Some promoted a brand; some offered their thoughts and prayers; some were prescheduled tweets musing about things completely unrelated to the tragedy unfolding. At least one national brand tried to use the tragedy to drive traffic to its website.“It becomes so simple to forget that the tweet exists, and something may happen like a natural disaster or an act of terror, and it can be embarrassing to have that message pushed out into the feed at that time,” said Nathan Wright, founder of social media consulting firm Lava Row Inc.

So how should a business react to a national tragedy when using social media?

The Business Record asked seven local and national marketing experts for their advice.


Scheduling tweets

The consensus is unanimous: It’s OK to schedule tweets, and the recent tragedies in Boston and Newtown, Conn., don’t change that.

“However, that doesn’t mean your social media is automated,” said Drew McLellan, owner of McLellan Marketing Group Ltd. and a Business Record columnist. “You still need a human being monitoring it and using common sense about what to say when.”

Social media managers also need to be paying attention to what is going on in the news and react by unscheduling tweets when necessary.

Lava Row Inc. founder Nathan Wright recommends against scheduling tweets more than 24 hours in advance. Any longer, and it can become easy to forget that something is scheduled in the first place.


Offering condolences

There is some differing opinion here.

Some feel it is OK to post heartfelt messages to the effect of “Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Boston.”

“We use social media to connect with each other,” said Raylee Melton, owner of Moth Media LLC. “In times of tragedy, we need to use it to comfort and support each other. Sending positive condolences out to your network is a great way to reach out to them.”

Lava Row representatives, though, warn that condolences can come off as insincere and self-serving.

That’s something echoed by Bryan Webber, chief marketing officer at DomiKnow Inc., which helps small businesses with marketing.

“It’s a fine line to walk,” he said. “You cannot feel emotions through a Facebook post. You cannot see tears through a tweet. ... Don’t allow your audience to misinterpret your message. Keep it simple.”

The strategy can change if the business has value to add – such as a service it is offering to help victims – or has operations in the area affected by the tragedy.

Another thing to take into consideration is that before a business shares or comments on the news, it should make sure the news is accurate. The Associated Press’s hacked tweet that the White House was bombed would have been a bad one to share.

“For most brands, they should just pause,” said Jeremiah Owyang, industry analyst at California-based research and advisory firm Altimeter Group. “Stay out of it until they have the information.”



Marketing yourself

Giving condolences is one of two best practices for reacting to a tragedy, said Katie Stocking, owner of Happy Medium LLC. The other is to stay silent.

“There’s dignity in silence,” added Lava Row digital strategist Norah Carroll. “I think marketers are so programmed and wired to be noisy and create messaging, that it’s not in their DNA to take 24 hours off and not say anything. I think it’s positive to be silent, in some cases.”

An example of what not to do: Epicurious, a food and recipe website, tweeted “In honor of Boston and New England, may we suggest: whole-grain cranberry scones!” along with a link to a picture. That was the second of two similar tweets.

If it doesn’t directly affect your brand, “You can’t get in trouble for saying nothing,” said Owyang from Altimeter Group.


Handling mistakes

Mistakes happen. Tweets that shouldn’t get sent out are transmitted. The strategy for correcting them seems to be to apologize, and then get out of the way.

“Most often, a straight-out apology to their entire fan base, and then silence, is going to be the best solution,” said Carroll from Lava Row.

What you don’t want to do is what Epicurious did, said Wright. Epicurious received backlash from followers on Twitter and responded individually to those tweets by saying “We truly regret that our earlier food tweets seemed insensitive.” It was in “heartless, robotic fashion,” Wright said.

And, as pointed out in a blog by Brad Phillips on Mr. Media Training, “their earlier tweets didn’t ‘seem’ offensive. They were offensive.” The company didn’t really take responsibility for the mistake with that response.

West Des Moines-based convenience store chain Kum & Go LC caused a bit of a negative reaction when it tweeted: “Think you’re having a bad day? 101 years ago today, the Titanic sank.” The tweet was posted as the news was unfolding out of Boston.

A couple of people responded on Twitter, to which the company replied, “Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by the tragedy in Boston today.”

A spokesperson from Kum & Go declined to comment on the situation for this article.

In that situation, “I would just make a second post, letting followers know, you made a mistake,” said Melton at Moth Media. “We are all human and sometimes things just come out wrong. If you let people know you made the mistake and are so sorry, usually they will think ‘OK,’ and go on with their day.”


Lasting impact?

If your company made a gaffe, the good news is it probably didn’t hurt the bottom line.

“I think you can definitely tarnish your reputation and create a disconnect with your most loyal followers,” McLellan said. “But the truth of it is, for most people, our attention span is so short that unless it’s a huge faux pas, they may think it was tacky, but in a click of their mouse, they’ll be on to something else.”

It can still have an effect, even if not on the bottom line. Especially in a tragedy, said Stocking from Happy Medium, everyone is affected differently. Some people won’t be affected at all by what a marketer says, whereas the wrong thing can affect someone more deeply than a marketer ever considered.