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Being Empathetic in Times of Tragedy: How to Communicate to Members of Your Online Community

Posted by David Dumas on Aug 17, 2016 8:00:43 AM

3 minute read

Copy of Copy of July 19, 20, 21, 27 - 2016 (2)

Times of tragedy are difficult for everyone involved. The important thing to remember is that everyone IS involved. National crises not only affect the people directly involved, they pull at the emotions of the nation, sometimes the world.

I come from New York. Not the city, but close enough that a good portion of my community worked in NYC and commuted regularly. The morning of September 11th, 2001 was surreal and I know the nation as a whole felt the same way. For weeks afterward it was sometimes more difficult to find someone who WASN’T affected by the events of September 11th than someone who was.

The point to be made is this:

When tragedy strikes, the ripples are felt far and wide. Organizations often struggle to figure out how to behave. Do you actively acknowledge it or do the opposite? Will making mention of it seem like you’re trying to exploit a bad situation?

Nancy Schwartz of gettingattention.org prepared an article the morning of the Boston Marathon Bombings that deals with precisely these questions. The article serves as a useful guide for establishing your communication plan the day of a tragedy or within the first few days of one.

While each tragedy is unfortunately different, the general rule should be this:

Think. Plan. Proceed carefully.

Your online community is connected to not only you, but a much larger online community as well and all of these are people with human emotions. You need to consider what their emotional state is and whether or not your communication will be appropriate.

Fly manually for a while

Anything you have set up as automatic should be carefully looked at and likely disabled for a short while. This means scheduled social media posts, emails, any communication. Do your customers really need to know that time is running out for a big sale on sweaters right now? Likely their thoughts are elsewhere at the moment and you don’t want to appear insensitive.

But don’t ignore either.

Your organization doesn’t have to stick its head in the sand. Reaching out and communicating with your community with relevant or helpful contact is allowed and encouraged. The key here is to make certain it’s an appropriately useful engagement.

Bernstein Crisis Management, a virtual consultancy firm, elaborates on this:

“In any crisis, showing empathy is the best way to reach out to stakeholders. In addition, many of us in the business world have resources and information that the average person on the street may not have. Take this opportunity to share what you can with others. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it reflects well on your organization, and people will remember.”

Offer help but don’t exploit

In marketing we often tow the mantra “show, don’t tell.” In times of tragedy, this is the direction your business should take. It may sound ugly, but the truth is that tragedy can also provide opportunity for your business to shine.

Demonstrate to your online community that you are an empathetic business who is ready to pitch in and contribute in any way possible and follow through, even if it’s only through moral support. Be careful not to toot your own horn though. If warranted, your online community will do it for you.

You NEVER want to be the company accused of trying to exploit a tragedy for commercial or personal gain. So don’t do it.
Know when to return to normal.

In the days following a tragedy, it is important to walk a careful line as emotions will still be running high. Keep your ear to the ground and slowly be prepared to adjust course as necessary.

It is often said that “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” In times of tragedy this is especially true. However, it is also said that “life goes on” and this is also true. There will be a time to return to business as usual.

When that happens you want to be remembered positively for how you navigated through the tragedy. Not the opposite.

Topics: Community, Marketing, News

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