Should We Stop Marketing When Tragedy Strikes?

robin-williams

Imagine you’re at a party, and you’re watching a football game.

Every time the Broncos score, a riotous cheer breaks out. Drunk 40-somethings trying to recapture their inner frat boys scream “YEEEEEEEAH!!!” a lot. Everyone’s loving the game.

In calmer moments, people are tossing around stories. They’re cracking jokes. There’s a lot of good-natured ribbing.

Then something terrible happens. Let’s say somebody has a seizure.

The paramedics come. They get the guy onto a gurney. The ambulance drives off into the night.

The door closes behind them. There’s a few moments of stunned silence. And then the conversation explodes.

“I can’t believe that happened.”

“I hope he’s okay.”

“Has somebody called his family?”

The Broncos score again. Nobody’s paying attention. Then somebody shouts from the kitchen, “YEEEEEEEAH!!!”

Oh, man.

Last night, the news broke that Robin Williams had passed away, and that his death is presumed a suicide.

Twitter was awash with shock, and grieving, and very public pain. You couldn’t keep up with the hashtags. When I checked, eight out of the 10 trending topics were Robin Williams RIP, or the title one of his movies.

People were posting quotes, and movie clips, and pictures. A lot of people were in a lot of pain, and they were grieving and mourning among their friends. Even Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus found something decent to say.

For a few hours, almost everything you saw was Robin, or a link to a suicide hotline.

Either that, or a scheduled marketing tweet.

  • “I’m featured on XYZ today!”
  • “You can’t risk outliving your retirement savings. Growth investing is a necessary response to longevity risk.”
  • “[BRAND] is about helping people find out who THEY really are, then BEING THAT unapologetically, without guilt. Follow [BRAND] and RT” [that means retweet]
  • “How Social Media Changed The Hiring Process”
  • “COME TO OUR FREE WEBINAR.”
  • “If you’re planning a trip to [town] you don’t want to miss our [guide to the town]!!”
  • “I’m offering FREE coaching sessions!”
  • “We’ve got a great podcast coming out tomorrow! Watch this space!”
  • “Is delivery included in your book print quote? We include all foreseeable costs.”

At one point in the process, Peter Shankman (kind of a Twitter big shot) said this:

“That this still needs to be said is ridiculous. Brands: PAUSE YOUR DAMN SCHEDULED TWEETS.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Twitter, he’s referring to the fact that most of those tweets I listed up there were not written and posted live. They were scheduled far in advance through software that lets you post updates to social media platforms while you’re not online.

At the time of this writing, 35 people retweeted his comment, and 65 marked it as a favorite. But some people weren’t so sure. Some responses:

  • “I was going to say that, but I’m torn. I know how I personally feel, but is this a national tragedy on par with, say, Boston?”
  • “Legit question… why? Sure pull any inappropriate or awkward ones, and it is very sad, but should commerce stop for a death?”
  • “agree with [person up there]. Very very sad and tragic loss but too subjective to make that kind of definitive call.”
  • “this is NOT anywhere near that level… Life goes on.”

“That level”? Oh, man.

Automated social media updating is a big thing.

It has been for quite a while. There are a lot of people quite happy to take your money – sometimes a lot of it – to give you the opportunity to look like you’re active on social media when you’re really not.

Hootsuite calls itself “the #1 Social Relationship Platform.”

Buffer is “the easiest way to publish on social media.”

With Edgar, “you can finally break the never-ending cycle of writing and posting new updates”. They’ll charge you $600 a year – or $5300 if you’re a business – to let you schedule and repeat the same tweets, over and over, forever.

Letting you tweet when you’re not tweeting is big business.

For a lot of brands, this is how the world works now. This is what social media is to them. And they are entitled to that. You can use social media however you want to.

(One person responding to Shankman’s comment said, “last night local cbs affiliate in stl was auto posting about Miley Cyrus during the looting and riots… multiple times…”. Even news outlets do it.)

But it’s probably prudent to look at social media like a social gathering.

When somebody dies and everyone finds themselves at a social gathering, the feel of the party changes.

When somebody dies and people are crying, ads don’t feel nice.

That doesn’t mean it’s immoral to advertise when somebody is dead. It doesn’t mean your brand will collapse. There is no official line before which marketing is okay, and after which it’s verboten.

I don’t think anybody likes the people arguing in public over whether somebody was a “big enough deal” to warrant a flag flying at half mast, and the same applies here. The aftermath of someone’s passing is not the time to engage in public debate.

Let’s not argue. Let’s have a bit of empathy.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

That means understanding grieving people don’t really want to think about your webinar. Should doesn’t matter. They’re hurting, and they don’t want to see it.

Part of succeeding in parties is reading the feel of the party. It’s hard to do that when you’re not there.

I don’t really blame brands for not getting “the rules”. “The rules” are subtle and ever changing. They apply here, but not there. Then, but not now. Corporate is breathing down everybody’s neck to “get on social” and corporate has never really been all that great at feeling the pulse of the people.

So what do we do about the Broncos fan?

Should he be tarred and feathered? Should we boycott him? Should we ban him from all further gatherings?

Of course not.

But we might want to view him as a cautionary tale and do our best to avoid cheering and joking and laughing when something has gone horribly wrong.

Canceling our scheduled tweets might be a good place to start.

About the author: Naomi Dunford started IttyBiz in 2006. In her free time, she likes to… ha! Free time. You’re adorable. Learn more about her here and catch up with her on Twitter or Facebook.