Thought Leadership

Should Your Organization Mourn Public Tragedies on Social Media?

social media crisis

The following post is based on research published in the latest issue of PR Journal, the quarterly academic journal presented by PRSA and the Institute for Public Relations. The paper, “Organizational Social Media Mourning: Toward a Framework for Organizations Wishing to Empathize With Publics During Tragedies” is by Jensen Moore, Ph.D., the University of Oklahoma; Robert “Pritch” Pritchard, APR, Fellow PRSA, the University of Oklahoma; and Vincent F. Filak, Ph.D., the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

In May 2022, two separate domestic-terrorist attacks occurred within 10 days of each other in the United States. First, a gunman killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., in a racially motivated shooting. Eight days later, another gunman entered an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where he killed 19 children and two adults.

Organizations scrambled to halt their scheduled social media content and to decide how or whether they should offer their support after these tragedies. Companies have also wondered how to respond on social media after natural disasters and the deaths of heads of state or celebrities. News of such events commands the attention and emotions of consumers.

Jay Baer, founder of the digital marketing firm Convince & Convert, advises organizations to stay silent during tragedies. As PR Daily reports, commenting on social media about a public tragedy can appear tasteless. Organizations don’t want to be perceived as exploiting a tragedy for their own gain, which could create a crisis of their own.

Guidelines for commenting about tragedies

According to research published in Sage Journals in 2017, people use social media to mourn in various ways: to communicate news that someone has died, to give others permission to comment about the death, to acknowledge (or evade) their own grief and even to allow the deceased to continue having a social media presence.

We wanted to know how these principles might apply to organizations, specifically during or after public tragedies. In talks with focus groups, our researchers found that the public wants organizations to use social media in many of the same ways that individuals do:

  • Showing genuine concern for the people affected
  • Connecting to the tragedy using hashtags
  • Using or create images that are compassionate, empathetic and tasteful
  • Supporting recovery efforts with donations, sponsorships or volunteer work
  • Commemorating and help make sense of the tragedy
  • Avoiding messages that promote the organization or that try to improve its reputation

And even while some experts recommend silence, research suggests that organizations which fail to connect with the public on social media to mourn tragedies can experience reputational damage, online protests or boycotts. Our research shows that organizations which find ways to honor victims and unify social media mourners toward recovery efforts will be well received.

[Illustration credit: lightly stranded] 

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1 Comment

  • Even on my personal social media accounts, I always question when it’s right and tasteful to speak on difficult subjects. Reading this has helped me figure out the best approach on how to be sensitive to tragedies, personally and professionally. -Hailey Castillo, writer/editor for Platform Magazine

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