How to Handle Your Business Online During a Tragic Event

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This post was originally written on June 14th, 2016. It has been updated and edited to reflect the latest best practices online.

When tragedy strikes in the world, one of the last things you might think about is how your business and its content is perceived online. But it’s something you want to think about immediately.

In fact, it’s something you should prepare for.

As the Internet gets older and we as businesses spend more time on it, it’s important that small businesses have a plan in place for the action they will or will not take online when a tragic event happens that affects a community, a nation, or the world as a whole.

We’ve all seen businesses small and large make tone deaf mistakes regarding events online. No one wants this for their own business (or really anyone else's!). More than likely you’ll never try and newsjack a story and appropriate it for your business and its content.

However, there are other small acts that can come across as tacky or simply be misinterpreted. All which can easily be prevented.

Have a plan in place

As we all are well aware tragedies happen a lot in this world. From natural disasters to terrible human perpetrated events to deaths of celebrities to senseless, unexplainable acts. It's the reality we live in, and to not be prepared for something we know will happen ultimately is not taking care of one's business.

As a business online, it’s smart to have a plan in place for when these moments happen. Regardless of if it's just you the solo-entrepreneur or a team of many, there should be an understanding and a plan (basic or extensive) for how your business will act online while news of a tragedy is breaking and continues to unfold.

How to Handle Your Social Media During a Tragic Event

Do you stop all posting for the day? Do you go about business as usual? Do you acknowledge the event? These are all real situations you will encounter with your business online.

Below are suggestions to help you prepare for when these events happen.

Pause and review scheduled content

If your business has scheduled content for social media, email marketing, or blog posts planned to go out and a tragic event happens, make the first thing you do when an event like this happens is you or your team stop and review the content that’s scheduled to go out.

Decide if it’s appropriate to share this content or if you indeed need to consider holding off for the time being. Ask yourself if your messaging can be misinterpreted. Ask if now is the right time to send, or if it’s totally fine to go along as business as usual.

Depending on your business and the services and products you offer, it’s up to you how you want to proceed with your content online during these times.

No one wants to see an inspirational quote during a mass shooting event, be sensitive about the content you do decide to share.

When you’re ready to share content again, double check the content

When you’re ready to turn your scheduled posts back on, send your newsletter, or post your blog post, be sure to review the scheduled content.

Is there anything in the messaging that might be misconstrued or taken out of context in light of recent events?

A quick once over could save you a misunderstanding in the long run.

Consider deleting anything that may be construed as insensitive during or right after the event

It is incredibly easy to post in real time (or have scheduled posts go out) during a terrible event without realizing it. We’re human. Things happen. Life comes at you quick.

If this does happen, delete the content if it feels obtuse or could be misunderstood. This only takes a few seconds, and might save you from looking insensitive or out of touch.

If anyone has notified you about it, privately or online, apologize and thank them. Don’t make a big deal about it. Everyone understands that things happen quickly online, if you’re apologetic and gracious people will get it and support you.

To say something or not

Your business isn't going to go bankrupt for choosing to not share content on social media for a few hours or even a full day about its products and services.

There are plenty of other things to work on in your business, as we all know.

If you are in the middle of a service or product launch, sometimes proceeding as normal is exactly what your customers or clients need and want. Sometimes it's the last thing they need. Only you can decide what the next right step is.

Many people don’t know what to say or don't want to insert themselves in a situation that has nothing to do with their business. This is real! And totally understandable.

Just because you have a platform, it doesn’t mean you need to insert yourself in a situation you don’t feel comfortable commenting on. Pay attention to that and honor that.

If you do feel like you want to acknowledge the event, do so. Don't be afraid to be honest, but tactful. If it's an event that has directly impacted your city or nation, then you may want to say something. That's also completely acceptable!

Another option is linking to a charity of your choice or resources that offer ways to help in your newsletter or on your social media channels. Something simple like that can go a long way, and it's a positive way to use your platform and give back. It also just feels better to be in action than not.

Pro-Tip: When I work with small businesses one of the big exercises we undergo is figuring out our voice and tone, so we’re very clear about what we will and won’t say as a business. If you haven’t done an exercise like this, I highly encourage it! It will not only help you in times like this but in all areas of your business online.

Think before you share breaking news

In all honesty, as a small product or service based business it's not your responsibility or job to break news. That’s not what your audience, clients, or customers look to you for. They look to you for what you do.

Don't share news on your business account about the event if it really does not impact you or your business. If you choose to, be careful about sharing specious info or fake news that will spread misinformation, especially minutes or seconds after reports of the event.

What you share online should align with your voice, tone, and values as a business. It can be easy to get caught up in events online, but remember what your job is when delivering content: information about your business. Always come back to that when in doubt.

Assess, Assess, Assess

I usually recommend that businesses take the day off from creating content when a catastrophic event or terrible incident happens that affects them. Often it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes, taking a few hours off is just enough. But it really depends on your business and who you serve.

And each case is and should be differently assessed. There's no blanket actions that we can apply to these events every time they happen. Take time to figure out what works for you and your business.

To be frank, we live in very tumultuous, scary times. As I edit and update this post, we’ve just had the biggest mass shooting in modern U.S. history in Las Vegas. When I originally wrote this post it was right after the Miami Pulse massacre in 2016 - which at that point was the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. In the past few weeks we’ve seen terrible hurricanes destroy communities, and prior to that we watched as Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Va. ultimately killing a woman. There is no shortage of tragic events in the 21st century.

The sad fact is that there are terrible things happening all over the world, all of the time. In this day and age, we simply can not stop our businesses during every tragic event. It’s a reality.

Determine what works for you and your business during these times.

Each business is different, there is no one size fits all response

Only you know your customers and clients and what they expect from you. What do your customers and clients look to you for? Perhaps your content is exactly what they need in this moment.

When horrific acts happen, we all feel helpless and want to control something, it's only natural.

Often times social media is the first thing we can turn to that allows us to take action, but make sure you have a plan in place for when these events happen so there is a good understanding of how to proceed as a business. Take a minute and decide if your business should be front and center discussing these events, be silent, or if it should simply proceed as business as usual. Your community might need that from you.

One of the most amazing things about the Internet is the community it brings to us every day, in times of both joy and sadness. As a business most days social media is a tool to help us, and it puts us in a unique position to help us grow and foster our own hopes and dreams in business.

Don't forget that in these dark moments.