Tips for Managing Social Media During Disasters


Social media during times of disaster can be both a very good thing, as well as its own disaster waiting to happen. Stuck at home when Hurricane Sandy hit on Monday (but very luckily with electricity), I spent the day parked in front of my computer paying lots of attention to Twitter and Facebook. Using social media as an instant news source, I got to hear how people all over the country were faring, seeing real-time images and even videos. But I also saw many social media faux paus that made me cringe. Of course, there isn’t a social media rule book that tells us how to act during tough times and we mainly have to learn as we go. But there are a few basic guidelines we can follow to minimize our chances of becoming a social media case-study.

Whether you’re running the social media accounts for a business or you’re just a building your own personal brand on social media, it’s important to act appropriately when disaster hits. Hint: Don’t take Lindsay Lohan’s lead.

Be careful of insensitive posts:

This guideline is meant to remind you that no matter what you’re experiencing during a disaster, someone else is likely experiencing worse fallout. Instead of continuing on with your regularly scheduled posts for the day, it’s a good idea to recognize what’s happening and to express your sympathy and concern. If you schedule social media posts ahead of time, it’s imperative that you immediately log into your platform and cancel or postpone the posts. Continuing to post your normal messaging while everyone else is talking about the disaster will make you look extremely insensitive. If you can’t post something sensitive about the tragedy, it’s best to simply stay quiet.

The same is true for running your personal social media accounts. Try to refrain from making snarky jokes about the hurricane. I get that the lady doing sign language next to Mayor Bloomberg was making funny faces, but she’s also doing a huge service during a serious time. Now is just not the time to be joking on her. One of my Facebook friends posted about how the hurricane was “boring” and immediately got a whole lot of blacklash from friends telling her to speak for herself. She quickly removed the post (I would have liked to see a follow-up apology post, too, but oh well).

Don’t use the tragedy to make a sale: 

If you’re posting to social media platforms as a brand, it probably comes naturally to you to attempt to tie everything back to your brand; even the most tangential of topics. So, when Hurricane Sandy hit, lots of brands attempted to relate the disaster back to their brand. Take American Apparel, for example. They sent out an email alerting subscribers to a sale they were holding “in case you’re bored during the storm…” and assigned the coupon code “SandySale” for the discount. I get that American Apparel was simply trying to give something back to their customers, but doing it in such a tasteless way didn’t win them any points.

Gap got a lot of flack for a similar move, tweeting, “All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe! We’ll be doing lots of shopping today. How about you?” They also checked in to “Frankenstorm Apocalypse  on Foursquare.  In Gap’s defense, they likely didn’t realize the seriousness of the storm at this point and because they weren’t personally affected, they didn’t take into consideration that it could be worse elsewhere. But as a national brand, they should have been.

Postpone social media events and parties:

Trust me, I love a good Twitter party on a Monday evening. And I totally get the idea that we can’t let the storm “win” and we must press on with what makes us happy. But when we’re smack dab in the middle of a huge storm that has people struggling hard, it’s a good idea to cancel Twitter parties and chats.

I actually watched a Twitter Party begin on Monday evening. The chat was on the topic of gardening and I was astounded that they were actually going through with it. Part of the country is drowning right now and you’re tweeting about garden watering habits? After a few questions, the chat ended up being postponed until the next evening, though it’s unclear if it’s because they experienced backlash or they simply had a low turnout.

Verify information and photos before re-posting:

Ugh. This one absolutely killed me during Hurricane Sandy. I felt like I was back in high school watching the anatomy of a rumor. Except when I was in high school, Photoshop wasn’t nearly as advanced. The sheer amount of people posting fake photos and distributing false information was ridiculous. While social media is a great place to get the truth about what’s going on, it’s also the ideal platform for quickly and easily spreading lies. During the hurricane, we saw photos that were obviously fake (even taken straight from movies!) that people were posting as if they were legit. One “breaking news” tweet even fooled CNN and the National Weather Service. When a man tweeted, “BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water.” it got more than 600 re-tweets even after confirmation it was not true.

With these lessons learned, we can hope that everyone can show a little more compassion and a little less insensitivity during our nation’s next disaster.