When Nelson Mandela passed from this life on December 5, 2013, people everywhere responded in their own ways.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for one, described the former South African president as that country’s version of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. – all in one.

The social media folks over at Virgin Active Australia, on the other hand, noted on their Facebook page that Mandela was a “great man” – one who had helped the company expand its presence in South Africa, “where we now have over 100 health clubs.” The post contained a link to an article about Mandela written by Virgin’s head honcho, Richard Branson.

Virgin’s original Facebook post led one marketing expert to tell the Sydney Morning Herald,

Considering what Mandela has done in his life, it does seem shallow to associate your brand with him on his death by remembering his involvement in your gym launch.

A PR exec added,

Virgin were clearly waiting and ready for Nelson Mandela to pass away. I have to wonder who else Virgin is waiting to die.

Ouch. Not exactly friend-gaining, follow-worthy assessments.

And yet, Virgin defended the post by replying to it:

We don’t really need to ‘plug’ our health clubs on our own Facebook page. It was merely to give a reason to our members for the link with us, Richard and the post itself.

Way to express your sincerest feelings for one of the most admired leaders of the last few centuries, guys. Which would be Mr. Mandela, not Mr. Branson. Just so you know.

Virgin, sadly, isn’t alone in using a death or tragedy to their own advantage.

Following the Boston Marathon bombings earlier this year, Epicurious, a recipe site, took advantage of the situation to talk up its offerings as follows: “In honor of Boston and New England, may we suggest: whole-grain cranberry scones.” Which was followed less than 30 minutes later by, “Boston, our hearts are with you. Here’s a bowl of breakfast energy we could all use to start today.” Both comments were followed by shortened links to the site’s recipe pages for each food item. Because readers appreciate economy of expression.

In the wake of the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut a year ago, K-Mart tweeted out the following: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this terrible tragedy. #PrayforNewtown #CTShooting #Fab15Toys.”

Obviously one hashtag too many. One you can be sure will never be forgotten. And likely never adequately explained. Even if it was an honest, and horrible, mistake.

Other organizations were also criticized for similarly pushing their messages to consumers. So much so that a few experts decided it was time to offer some guidelines for the use of corporate social media.

Given how far those guidelines seem not to have traveled within the global community, it seems way past time for a refresher. And a renewed focus on how brands can best communicate their messages in a world where the latest whisper can quickly become a blaring headline. In seconds.

It all boils down to something fairly simple, really.


Before you Tweet. Before you post on Facebook. Or wherever your brand’s followers are likely to get wind of your message. Those words on the screen can have a powerful effect on a person’s feelings – which you knew they could. Why else would you have been motivated to disseminate them?

Five considerations for brands to keep in mind during sensitive times, courtesy of strategist David Armano:

  1. 1.

    Assemble Staff & Partners Right Away

    You want to be out front with the comments but you’re not willing to inconvenience the dudes down the hall into taking a meeting first? Bad idea, Armano suggests. Newsroom staffers famously huddle when tragedy breaks. Many heads are better than one in such cases. At minimum, gathering the troops serves as a tangible reminder that people have much in common. Which can help to temper judgment in positive ways.

  2. 2.

    Set Your Sights on an Appropriate Response

    As opposed to an impulsive reaction, which belongs only in the thick of battle. Which social media really doesn’t need to become – even if other commentators are taking things that direction. Do the right thing, Armano says, and also take responsibility for stewarding the conversation. Which means hanging in there for the aftermath of any statement your organization makes. Not to pick off any snipers. But to stand and be counted. Because a lot of thought went into that statement you just made. Right?

  3. 3.

    Check Anything Scheduled to Automatically Post

    And disable anything scheduled to go out in the immediate future. Even content that seems totally innocuous and unrelated to an event can come off as callous and clueless. You couldn’t wait a day or three to remind everyone that those calfskin pumps will be available in another couple of weeks? Like it or not, some people will take that as your company’s official statement on world events – especially when that’s what everyone else is talking about.

  4. 4.

    Go Over Your Content Calendar

    If your organization uses a calendar to schedule announcements and communications, give it a good look to see if any of those might come off as tone deaf or insensitive to current events. As Armano reminds, “Proactively manage your calendar or it will manage you.”

  5. 5.

    Edit and/or Reschedule Sensitive Content

    There’s just no hiding a post or article that strikes a jarring nerve. Rather than explain it away or pretend that it didn’t happen, Armano advocates for over-communicating as much as needed: “Brands are now built in real time and they can be unbuilt just as quickly.”

As much as people have drifted into their own universes these days, socially and otherwise, we’re all still in this together. Why else would total strangers react and respond to what they see on their phones and tablets and screens?

As informal as social media channels can appear, what you say and how you say it still matter. Maybe more so now than ever.

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