Over the years, social media managers have become increasingly adept at striking a delicate balance of communication during unpredictable news cycles. 

From civil unrest and uprising, war, violence and political conflict and natural disasters — there’s no hard-and-fast formula for how to react (or not react) when a crisis or issue arises. We always recommend that any social media program be equipped to monitor, manage, respond and pause accordingly based on such events, anticipated audience needs, demands or expectations, as well as what a company or brand is uniquely positioned to provide. With a response protocol in place, a great deal of the daily decision-making stress can be alleviated. 

We also know by now that not every issue, crisis or piece of breaking news can be accounted for in advance. That said, there are questions that you can ask to guide this decision-making. 

The next time a breaking news moment hits, and you’re deciding how to respond, start by examining the following:

  1. Is this news or event likely to be on the hearts or minds of a significant portion (say, over a third) of your audience? Would seeing your post or ad potentially strike your audience as tone-deaf, unengaged or out-of-place in a stream of content related to the current issue? If so, it is worth pausing your social media activities (both paid and organic) in order to be sensitive to the mood, emotional state and mindset of your customers/supporters. It is better to save quality content for a time when it is appropriate and when people can pay attention. 

  1. Is this issue or crisis related to your company or industry? For instance, does it impact a geographic area where you have employees, or does it impact a community that you specifically serve? If so, it is likely not appropriate to pause but rather to pivot and focus your efforts on this issue and let your audience know that you are listening and are there to support with relevant resources. You can share specifics around what you are doing to support, so long as this comes after your aligned, direct and substantive action has been implemented. If appropriate, you can also use your social media platforms to provide your audience with ways they can further lend their support. 

  1. If you post, have you spoken internally beforehand to relevant stakeholders or experts close to this matter about how the tone and language of your social media content may be received? This is particularly relevant for cases where there may be sensitivities around race, gender, violence or trauma. This might involve utilizing an employee resource group, diversity, equity and inclusion manager, or utilizing an outside expert. Just as a writer might hire a sensitivity reader before publishing a story with characters with different life experiences or backgrounds, it’s important for social media managers to do the same. 

  1. Do you need to disseminate information unrelated to this crisis but nonetheless mission-critical? It is typically fine in such cases to continue to post while also remaining aware of your tone. For instance, you may choose to promote content that directly benefits or promotes patients while holding off on content that benefits or promotes the company, leadership or products. Avoid the use of “hooks” to play off breaking news, which will likely be received as opportunistic and insensitive. 

  1. Is this issue geographically relevant to your audience? For instance, is the news locally relevant but you have a global audience? Or is it relevant in another country but not your specific country? If a news moment is not particularly relevant geographically, it may be appropriate to continue your social media publishing while watching to avoid awkward or insensitive phrasing. You can also consider the ability to target by geography for some social platforms, such as LinkedIn. 

Breaking news decision-making is often fluid. By avoiding distractions and staying focused on your brand and audience, you can filter for the situational context of the moment and the key sensitivities at hand and from there proceed to make an informed decision for your company. 

About the Author:

Matt Haynes is an accomplished digital marketing leader with extensive experience in technology, biotech, and life sciences. Throughout his more than 15-year career, Matt has worked at leading global digital advertising and communications agencies where he has partnered closely with his clients to create digital experiences that generate interest, engagement, and revenue. Brands that he has worked on include Microsoft, BlackRock, VSP, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Biogen, among others. Most recently, Matt led corporate digital marketing and social media for Adaptive Biotechnologies, a commercial-stage public biotech company. Matt is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound with a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration.