The conundrum of being a non-U.S. company when tragedy strikes the U.S.

Posted on April 17, 2013 9:19 am by | Crisis Communication | Marketing | Social Media

Somalia terrorist attack didn't slow U.S. companies' social media activities

On April 14, one day before the horrific terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon finish line, nine militants in Mogadishu clad in suicide vests killed 35 people in a brazen attack on the Somalian Supreme Court. Scores of people were injured.

On that day, not a single U.S. company suspended its social media marketing efforts. Facebook updates and tweets danced merrily across pages. Nowhere did anybody call for a halt to these messages as the horror of the attack sunk in. And while I can’t be sure none were posted, I’m not aware of a single Somalian who chastised American companies for their insensitivity as they continued to pitch their brands and wares while the dust settled among the dead and wounded at the Supreme Court building.

In a study of contrast, s news of the Boston attack spread, Facebook (in particular) and other channels were flooded with condemnation of businesses and individuals that continued to push their marketing content, particularly those who didn’t have the established processes or the presence of mind to turn off autoposts. This was not the time for crass marketing; it was a time for communal grieving and reflection.  Edelman’s David Armano was quick to tweet a friendly reminder:

On Facebook, Peter Shankman argued that the reminder shouldn’t be necessary; by now, everyone should know better. Posts and articles have followed with advice for social media managers, like this one from PR Daily. Several people pointed to an Armano blog post from last December, covering five considerations for branded content during sensitive times.

To be sure, there were egregious and thoughtless messages from U.S. businesses to American audiences. Epicurious, the foodie website, had to pull some palm-to-forehead tweets connecting the bombings to recipes (such as one linking to Cinnamon-Scented Breakfast Quinoa that read, “Boston, our hearts are with you. Here’s a bowl of breakfast energy we could all use to start the day”).

Most offensive was Guy Kawasaki, whose legions of interns continued distributing banal tweets. When confronted with the wrong-headedness of his tweeting as the devastation of the attack became unbearably real, he tweeted his disdain:

On Tuesday, Kawasaki evidently deleted most of those tweets, but didn’t offer any acknowledgement that he’d done anything wrong.

If only every instance of a company or individual blithely maintaining its schedule of marketing posts were as easy to condemn.

I confess that I didn’t think to turn off the GaggleAmp messages I had set up to promote the most recent episode of For Immediate Release, the podcast I co-host. GaggleAmp lets me set up promotions for the episode that are distributed to people who opt in to receive them; they can tweet them or share them on Facebook or LinkedIn. FIR is something I do for fun, not profit, it’s not connected to my business, it’s free, and our audience is international, so even after the GaggleAmps occurred to me (when one was re-messaged by an Australian listener), I didn’t think it was all that big a deal.

I did hear about the messages, though, from a few who questioned the wisdom of sharing them in the early hours of the Boston bombing.

But the surge of hostility aimed at autoposts and other commercial messages has me most concerned for offshore organizations. The fact is, many of those criticizing companies were unaware that at least some of the offenders were not U.S. companies and their messages were not aimed—at least, not entirely—at U.S. audiences.

Do we really expect every company to suspend their activities when a tragedy strikes our shores when our own companies and social media managers never consider affording the same consideration when their nations are similarly afflicted?

Sadly, given the speed with which so many people brought the hammer down on Monday, my advice for the foreseeable future is yes. As unnecessary as it should be, any company with a global online presence conducting its marketing in English should turn off autoposts and suspend marketing when such a tragedy strikes the U.S. With what is clearly a hairpin emotional response absent critical thinking, offended American consumers unaware of a company’s nationality could damage the organization’s reputation.

Besides, as Shankman correctly noted in a later Facebook update, “In all recorded history of time, no company has ever gotten in trouble for keeping quiet for 24 hours when a crisis didn’t involve them. Just saying.”

Still, it’ll be nice to see the day when everybody can take a deep breath and, as Civilination founder Andrea Weckerle put in in a Facebook update, “just give it a few minutes rest until everyone’s not feeling as raw.”



  • 1.Shel, This is a good analysis, and I agree with the conclusion.

    I think a key is good monitoring. I suspect there are many who, like me, wouldn't have been offended by someone's continuing to send scheduled posts, tweets, etc., but were very offended by Guy Kawasaki's reaction. Hard-and-fast rules are difficult to formulate because It's hard to know just when an event has crossed that line such that people's raw feelings become a concern. But when those raw feelings are expressed outright, it's time to take notice.

    When someone (anyone, regardless of the size of their social media presence) tells you in public that it's time to turn off the marketing machine, a line has been crossed. It's time to

    1. acknowledge that message,
    2. thank the messenger,
    3. express human concern over the situation, and then
    4. either go quiet or explain your decision not to, in words that you know may have a long life.

    Max Christian Hansen | April 2013 | Sacramento, CA

  • 2.This really depends on the degree of US penetration the brand has and seeks to have. Most of the US public is unaware of global tragedy and US brands rarely change their plans due to global activity (with the exception of the travel industry and high casualty events).

    We live in an increasingly global neighborhood, and this comes with a number of challenges. Part of this, particularly for US, is recognizing one's place in the world. Whereas I mourn with my fellow Americans, few in the US are aware of similar tragedies when they take place around the world. To expect all brands to cease marketing activity during a period of shock or mourning in the US is unreasonable.

    However, for a US-focused brand to ignore this period of mourning is just stupid.

    Jon B | April 2013 | NY

  • 3.Shel, thanks for sharing my comment on this issue. The international aspect of online communications is definitely a challenge for companies and brands that have a global presence. Out of respect, should they suspend social media marketing entirely for a particular amount of time, and who determines what that length of time should be? I imagine we hold SM marketing to a different standard than perhaps a company's traditional advertising efforts via television, for example, because there's the perception that the former of actively controlled in real time, while the latter isn't. Another issue complicating the situation is what sorts of tragedies warrant a cessation of activity. If the company is a purely U.S.-focused one, the answer is simpler, but if it's international, when should common decency and compassion come into play in deciding what activities are no longer in good taste? Are geography and political alliances a deciding factor? Number of injured and dead? You mentioned the attack in Somalia, a terrible event in a list of all-too-frequent tragedies that take place globally. Where should we draw the line? I imagine my decision-making process would be different than that of some corporate executives - unless there were a risk of harm to their reputations due to perceived insensitivity.

    Andrea Weckerle | April 2013

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