Does Social Media Have a Place When Tragedy Strikes?

It's one of the most debated questions in the social media realm.

When tragedy strikes on such a worldwide level as it did this past week, we are all compelled to share what's in our hearts and minds. Sorrow, grief, anger, outrage, depression, fear, vigilance - the emotions overwhelm and often so does our need to be heard. Social media has made that easy, enabling anyone with access to a computer or mobile phone to do just that and broadcast what we want to the world.

But should we?

Take for example the facebook trend you now see that places a translucent French flag over your profile photo. From French nationals living abroad it was a heartfelt tribute of sorrow and solidarity. But with proliferation, the obligation to do the same increases. It becomes less a symbol of solidarity and more a membership card. Many of those profile owners have never stepped foot in France, but that said, does it preclude them showing their support? Does it mean you don't empathize as much or don't care if you don't use it? Does it really help anyone? For many I suspect, the one person it helps is themselves. Facebook as therapist may not be the first choice but for some in this digital age, it's the only choice.

That "choice to voice" is yours and yours only. When celebrities and politicians do it, it can help humanize them. Though voicing their unfiltered feelings seems to be an opportunity for foot in mouth disease. For brands and businesses, the right thing to say - or not to say - is more complex.

There's a fine line between showing empathy and creating backlash from jumping on the sympathy bandwagon. How can a well meaning facebook or twitter post mourning the senseless loss of life be viewed as negative, you ask? It happens when grief ironically is perceived as a commodity.

For those directly affected, an outreach of support and empathy does indeed help the healing process. Just turn to your own life when you've lost a loved one and remember the comfort you received from condolences. Sometimes when it came from strangers it was even more powerful.

But for companies, adding their two cents regardless of how genuine they might be, are viewed differently. Will they be looked poorly upon if they don't join the cause? Will they look like they are exploiting tragedy and are just taking advantage of the attention? In short, do we care that they care? Can't we just assume that few people on this planet condone such violence and loss of life?

In these situations, I always think of my friend the attorney who asks his client's the same question before he files a suit. "What if you were to do nothing for now and just wait?"  The damage and costs only escalate as your emotions subside. Unless you are adding a perspective so unique it needs to be heard, silence is a social media strategy to which most companies should adhere.

Some things simply don't need to be publicized and should not be commoditized. Resist the temptation to pontificate on the virtual soapbox we've all been given. Instead, choose to share those opinions and emotions with those you trust and contribute resources outside of the public eye.


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