How to Build an Empathetic Social Media Strategy for Times of Tragedy


Every morning, I listen to the news. I’ve been doing this since high school and now well over half my life, as I’ve changed from radio antennas to apps. Sadly, with all the recent tragedies — from mass shootings in the US and terrorist attacks to devastating earthquakes and other natural disasters — my lifetime habit has become essential to my work.

As one of Moz’s community managers, it’s my and my team’s responsibility to take care of all of you. Whether you interact here on the blog or tweet at us, we’re here to help you out, share something awesome, or just send you a cat gif. In addition to being online marketers, each and every one of you has cares and concerns outside of our world. And we are a global community.

Over the years, our team has developed and evolved responses to these tragedies, particularly when it comes to social media. Right now, the valiant Megan leads our social efforts. I’m not going to sugarcoat this: it absolutely sucks that we have to have these processes. I can also tell you that I’m not the only one on my team who’s starting to feel desensitized to, in particular, the violent tragedies.

Why this is important

In times of crisis, we turn to social media for news, for eyewitness reports, and for safety check-ins for ourselves or those we care about. When a brand continues to post about the “7 best SEO tips” or the “14 moves to dance like Drake” and everyone else is focused on the current breaking tragedy, your brand looks tone deaf. As if you put your social media on automation and left it like Wall-E, running until the end of time.

Your brand is made of people. Your community is made of people. Acting like a person during tragedies is the most concrete action you can take from those “humanizing your brand” books ubiquitously living on marketers’ shelves.

Recognizing the pain in your community, while still recalling that you’re a brand

My team has evolved a policy that if a tragic event dominates social media, we put our social media on pause. It may be on pause for a whole day or a few hours. We then reassess if it’s okay to start tweeting or Facebooking about online marketing again.

In the past, we’ve added some messages of support for those suffering the most. We’ve even experimented with telling our audience what we were doing to help.

Moz's Ferguson empathy tweet

This tweet, which I wrote and take full responsibility for, came off as callous to some — as if Moz was trying too hard to be a responsive brand in order to gain virtual brownie points. It also sparked a debate amongst Moz’s entire staff.

In order to maintain our values of transparency, our team used to send all-staff emails to let them know that we were pausing social media. (We don’t do this anymore because, sadly, these tragedies are too prevalent. Additionally, our entire company has started using Slack — think IRC with a better interface — which means these get discussed in our open team channel.) Our staff debated the impact of tragedy on Moz’s audiences, and we didn’t all agree.

Our team also decided that, when it comes to offering up good thoughts to those directly impacted by these tragedies, it’s also best to not post this type of message on our social channels — unless we hit the moment right. I know, this sounds like it goes directly against Moz’s core value of Empathy. But we never want to sound hollow or like we’re joining the bandwagon too late. For instance, we did not change our Facebook profile icon to reflect the French flag after the recent attack on Paris. We talked about it, but decided it was too late to do it without looking like we were just following a trend or just trying to look like we’re a brand who cares.

Instead, most Mozzers tend to take to their own social media accounts in these moments. We’re all people, right? We may not speak as Moz, but it’s a different way of showing us as human. (We also do this for other happy times, such as marketing chats. For example, Roger Mozbot (@Moz) doesn’t participate in #SEOchat discussions; one Mozzer will, tweeting from our personal handles.)

Train and empower the entire team

We make these calls on a case-by-case basis. Everyone on our team is empowered to make the call and take the actions to pause our social media. EVERYONE.

We used to wait for our Director of Community, Jen, to give her opinion or to confer with our executive team. But this is the reality of the world that we live in: If you’re waiting for your CEO to tell you to stop, you are waiting too long. You are on the front lines of your community, and you are the one who must make that call.

If you pause it for a couple hours because you’re worried, it’s better to not send out messages at all than to be the jerk tweeting about your discount on dog food while everyone else is focused on a school shooting.

Christy pauses social media in the wake of another shooting

Christy is all-around awesome, but her community team focus is primarily our Q&A forum. However, because everyone on our team is trained and empowered on how to deal with crises (or fill in when people are on vacation), when this happened on a holiday, Christy jumped right in and paused our social media.

How do you pause your social media?

Like most brands, Moz uses social media management software to do all the things. We specifically use SproutSocial. Currently, (to my knowledge) no social media management software has a pause button. However, several — like SproutSocial and Buffer — have mentioned they are working on them as their response to the seemingly endless stream of tragedies.

This means we must manually stop each and every post scheduled to go out during the time we’re pausing for. For SproutSocial, we either turn posts into drafts or reschedule them for later days.

We choose a time frame during which we don’t share updates. The length of this time frame may depend on the extent of the tragedy and news cycles, or if it happens during working hours or not. Typically, we go for a couple hours, a half day, or an entire day. Before this timeframe is up, we then reevaluate if we should start posting again.

During this time, we will still respond to customers and others who are messaging us directly in need of help or other assistance. We don’t stop being community managers; we just pause our outgoing social media blasts.

Pause those social media ads, too!

Don’t forget to pause ads as well, or work with your paid manager to do so. Ads are usually more sales-y in subject matter. And who cares about buying SEO software — even if we think it’s pretty cool — when there’s a huge earthquake and people are dying?

There’s no sleep button on life

We’re huge believers in having a community team who’s trained on all things. (If you want to know more about that, watch this presentation from Jen.) Our team, who’s trained on and has access to our social media, currently spans four US time zones because there is no sleep button on life. Even if we may be snoozing, the world turns.

Each one of us holds a responsibility to our community and brand. Sometimes, this means we stay up until the wee hours of the morning because there’s a tool outage. And sometimes this means we stop what we’re doing and jump in, or we reach out and ask for anyone on our team to help.

The team responds to the Paris attacks

I was at a conference and on paid time off when the Paris attacks happened. I saw it come through early on my Twitter feed, which meant that I hopped into our Slack channel on my phone and told our team what was happening. It was working hours for us, so it was pretty seamless to alert everyone and get someone else to stop all the social media.

Don’t capitalize on tragedy

This should be common sense, but apparently, it is not. Remain sensitive to the issues at hand.

Do not tweet on a hashtag trend without investigating the trend’s topic, as this boutique did during the Aurora shootings:

Aurora dress selling tweet

And don’t pull an NRA, like you haven’t watched the news (also during the Aurora shooting aftermath):

NRA asks how shooters are doing during Aurora shooting

Don’t act like you care, but actually just want people to give you money, like the GAP during Hurricane Sandy:

Gap just really wants you to shop

And worse, don’t offer a discount and discount code to your community affected by tragedy. People whose houses and communities were destroyed during Hurricane Sandy didn’t give two shits about a sale at American Apparel just for them:

American Apparel's Sandy sale

Your community has its own tragedies, too

Community managers also must pay attention to what’s happening in your community. The world itself may be floating along just fine, but your community could be distracted. Recently, our community lost the wonderful Dana Lookadoo.

In Dana’s honor, our team paused social media for the day. Jen also wrote a lovely blog post about how much she impacted us, gave the community a place to grieve, and helped set up a scholarship in her name. We did this because we loved Dana, and it came from our hearts. (Miss you, Dana!)

Sometimes your industry news needs to take a backseat

Don’t let industry news trump tragedies that are bigger than your community. It may be really important to your community and industry, but with few exceptions, it’s probably not as important — or it can wait.

The 2014 Isla Vista massacre took place right when SEOs were seeing impact from the Panda 4.0 (#26) update. I spent a lot of that extended holiday weekend on Moz’s social media. Our community was blowing up about Panda. This was right before we started a policy about stopping social media. But I remember getting so angry when watching my own Twitter feed, seeing every SEO paranoid about Panda and every other person concerned for the human life lost. From my personal account, I unfollowed a lot of SEOs that weekend and got pretty depressed about our community.

Take care of yourself

Which leads into the last bit of community manager advice: In the wake of tragedies, make sure you take care of yourself. There’s nothing shameful with stepping back and saying you need help managing your brand during times of tragedy. There’s nothing bad about asking for a second opinion from someone when you’ve reached your limit. I should’ve reached out to my team during that weekend.

Self-care looks different for everyone, but it just means to be nice to yourself in times of stress and when you’re feeling overwhelmed. It may mean unplugging for an afternoon or taking a walk. Or playing with your cat or treating yourself to your favorite meal. My friend Rachelle Abellar published some great books with self-care tips, advice, and ideas if you need inspiration.

Self-care is essential for every person. It’s okay if you’re burned out and need to take a break, or if you’re so agitated, you just need to lie down for a bit. Take care of yourself. Your community needs you to be a whole person.

And now, I’m going to do some self-care and watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Panic button header image by WackyStuff


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