Brands Be #PREPARED! Terrorism & Mass Tragedy Social (Re)Action Guide

It seems all too troublingly familiar: We turn on the news and hear of another terrorist attack or mass shooting. Only now, instead of tuning into structured media outlets to digest news, events unfold before our eyes on social media where everyday individuals become real-time journalists who stream, capture and report events on-the-scene and through hearsay.

This change in news consumption and reporting habits affects how brands strategize and plan their social media communications. While most will never need to employ the Community Management Terrorism Crisis Protocol, it has become clear that every company should have one in place.

We’re not talking your typical CM Crisis Protocol, a must-have for when the CEO puts their foot in their mouth or customer service royally f&*%s up. We’re talking about actual, life-and-death crises here. These are the situations none of us ever want to experience. They’re when protecting brand and maintaining customer loyalty take a distant back seat to fear, horror and grief.

CM Terrorism Crisis Protocols are now not only necessary for airlines, government buildings and mass transit organizations, but for businesses as a whole, from college campuses to nightclubs to movie theaters. The unfortunate and tragic reality is this: Terrorism and mass calamity can strike anywhere at any time.

In this post, we’ll cover how citizens look to social media for the most immediate updates when tragedy strikes; outline what CMs and organizational leaders need to have in place to communicate clearly, effectively and, most importantly, accurately; and highlight how other organizations have handled the direct aftermath of terrorism and what CMs can learn.

Social Media in Emergencies

In July 2013, the first tweet about the crash of Asiana Flight 214 went online with a photo less than 60 seconds after the plane crashed at San Francisco International Airport. In the first 30 minutes after the crash, witnesses, survivors and news outlets flooded Twitter with more than 44,000 tweets. This rush of information is the social media environment brands and community managers operate in when tragedy strikes, whether it’s a plane crash, natural disaster or terrorism.

In an era where terrorism and mass shootings are real in tandem with accidents, imaginations tend to run wild. The unfolding moments of calamity create an information vacuum, and the proliferation of social media has made nearly everyone a potential on-the-scene reporter when a tragedy unfolds. The rush of posts in the initial moments after a tragic event overload the information vacuum and can make it hard to sort the facts from hearsay, and that’s perfectly understandable given the confusion and, frankly, fear that people close to the situation must be experiencing. This is where affected brands can and must step in to be the authoritative voice providing factual information to the social world, and indeed the world at large.

The infiltration of social media in our lives has made social channels the first place the public turns for information when news breaks. This means you need to have a social crisis plan in place, supported by a personnel structure that can execute it at a moment’s notice during impossibly stressful situations.

An excellent semi-recent example of an organization quickly asserting its social channels as an authoritative information source is San Francisco International Airport. It tweeted 15 times in the first few hours after the Asiana crash. It also stepped up on Facebook, using its page as a backup channel when the airport’s website went offline under heavy traffic. Asiana itself is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Despite the fact that more than 200 of its passengers and employees nearly lost their lives (and three did), it took an hour to post a tweet — a tweet that contained no information about what happened — and tweeted a paltry four times in the following 12 hours. Its failure to be there created a vacuum of authority on the incident that other sources had to fill, diminishing its own reputation in the process and making it look unprepared for the type of emergency it could face at any time.

Response Time & Accuracy

Speed is important as a crisis unfolds, but accuracy is most important. You absolutely cannot, in any way, shape or form, share incorrect information on social media during a crisis. Imagine posting “the gunman has been subdued,” only to find out he or she hasn’t been. Not only will the false information spread like a wildfire across the internet, it could put someone’s life in danger if they stop running from a scene or come out of hiding thinking the coast is clear. You cannot afford to be wrong here. Accuracy must always take precedence over speed.

Your social crisis structure can help ensure you communicate accurately. It will establish who does your posting and identify the authoritative sources they should accept information from. It will also emphasize what information is your responsibility to reveal. For example, law enforcement gives the all-clear after an active-shooter situation or announces when a suspect has been apprehended, not your brand. Can you retweet and share what the official source says publicly? Absolutely. Should your brand be the first to announce it based on second-hand or off-the-record information? Never.

Your social crisis structure should also spell out who you need to coordinate with in the event of an emergency. Depending on the type of crisis, you may have multiple jurisdictions of law enforcement agencies, fire departments, paramedics and first responders on the scene within minutes. Know the roles you need to identify (if you can get the names of individuals, even better) beforehand so you’re not scrambling in the heat of a very tense moment.

Don’t forget that the world is reading what you post. That means everyone. Proper planning gives you the chance to identify potential audiences, including journalists, law enforcement, bystanders, witnesses, victims and victims’ families, to name a few. It’s true that your posts will be visible to everyone in and out of these groups, but each will feel their impact in a different way. Thinking about this ahead of time will help you be aware of your audiences and hopefully avoid a situation where you unintentionally say something that upsets them even further.

Planning for Mass Calamity

Set a broad plan for your social media, but parcel out plans for each channel you are involved in. The plan should be broad enough that it can be flexible to unexpected constraints, and specific enough to reduce or eliminate confusion and question in the event assets of the broad plan are unavailable.

Depending on the size of the organization, the social crisis plan should be part of the company’s broader crisis communications plan that works in tandem with public relations and/or communications teams.

Brainstorm with the crisis communications team on potential situations and conduct in-house “fire drills” to identify:

  • What may need to be communicated
  • Questions that may arise
  • Communication milestones
  • Approved and adaptable generic holding statements

Crisis Chain of Command

Your plan should clearly spell out who will be in charge of posting to your channels in the event a crisis unfolds. It should be someone with immediate access to every channel you’re involved in and who can be contacted and spring into action on immediate notice. Have a backup person.

Next, identify who that person gets their information from:

  • First responders, the police, or only the police chief?
  • Communications director, senior PR professional?
  • Legal team?

Define who the crisis CM reports to and gets clearance to post from (or if they themselves are enough):

  • Owner/president
  • Communications director, senior PR professional
  • Manager on duty
  • Legal

If the crisis CM can’t get ahold of the above, who is their backup?


Hashtags keep information organized and are a powerful way for social media users to quickly identify themed content and easily find more information. In the event a hashtag has already been established, be sure to use the known hashtag to ensure the accurate, official information coming from the brand can easily be found. If the brand is breaking the news, establish a hashtag that’s representative of what occurred and is simple, reducing the likelihood of it being misspelled, misinterpreted or misrepresented.

Moments Between Information

A brand’s or business’ social coverage of mass tragedy shouldn’t be moment-to-moment. In situations where the crisis CM isn’t directly responsible for aiding those immediately threatened (e.g., an airline crisis CM vs. a bartender actually in the situation, live), they should prepare the brand’s social channels for information seekers.

Pin the company’s message to the top of the feed, detailing the dissemination of information, where they can find more information, or show their support for victims and their families. The same goes for your social bios. If the organization’s accounts aren’t verified, use the bio to note it as your official account.

As people come to your social channels for information about a tragedy, it’s best if your profile page matches the tone and mood of the situation, or at the very least isn’t offensive. Tertiary, but in good taste, it’s a wise idea in the immediate aftermath to remove any splashy or light-hearted cover photos and avatars and replace them with simple branded material or, if available, something that reflects the current tone of events. This should go without saying: Cancel all scheduled posts.

Handling Comments During Catastrophe

Decide beforehand how you will handle comments. Who will monitor them? Is it the crisis CM or someone trained in social customer service? Should they respond, or simply flag and notify the crisis CM or communications director? Is your organization so small that you will not be monitoring comments and solely posting updates as you know them? If you choose to respond, what will you respond to? Who will compose the response messages? Is sign-off needed before posting? What is your approach to correcting misinformation and speculation?

Pre-planning for Mass Calamity – All Employee Training

Don’t forget your employees are also on social media, from cafeteria staff to the box office, and bartenders to office managers. Though they will likely never require training to represent your brand or business on social media, it’s important they are aware of the protocols to follow in the event of a tragedy as it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to rally the staff to put down the protocol in the unfolding moments.

To this end, it’s not a bad idea to review your company’s social media policy on a routine basis. Every 6-12 months, depending upon the likelihood of employees engaging in social media about the brand (e.g. marketing and political agencies would require different training than nightclubs and movie theaters), should be sufficient. Be sure to remind them of terrorism protocol.

When talking to them about what to do in case the worst happens, reinforce the importance of accuracy and emphasize that speculation can be dangerous. Like your CM, they should know to only post and repost credible information from original sources. This becomes especially important to emphasize in the aftermath of an event when “I heard that they…” or “Apparently they found a…” type rumors can easily spread. (This is doubly important because one wrong statement could open the door to libel, slander or other legal ramifications). Like all their communication, social or otherwise, they should avoid and you should discourage hate speech or inflammatory remarks, no matter how raw their emotions.

Emphasize with your employees that their top priority in an emergency should always be their safety and the safety of those around them. Live-streaming, photos, audio and video can take a back seat.

As your employees, they may be in situations that aren’t visible to the general public after a tragedy or terror strikes. In consultation with law enforcement and your legal team, provide guidance on what should and shouldn’t be shared publicly. Consider here the audiences you identified earlier. How would victims’ families react to seeing a live-stream of the scene where their loved one died? Providing sage counsel to your teams can avoid putting everyone in a position that makes a horrible time more unbearable for all involved.

Returning to “Normal”

When can you go “back to normal” in social? There’s no right answer here, and of course it depends on myriad factors: Is the investigation ongoing? How much was resolved or is known? How severe was the situation? Is your establishment open or still a crime scene? It also has as much to do with intangible gut feelings. If it feels #toosoon, it probably is.

All this goes for retweets and shares, not just your organization’s original posts.

In a world that has both social media proliferation and spontaneous mass murder and terrorism, brands of every size everywhere must establish social media crisis protocols and be sure these are communicated throughout the organization. While we can’t prepare for the next unthinkable tragedy, brands can take solace in knowing their social communication during terrorism or crisis is known within the organization, providing much-needed, sought after, accurate and timely information during calamity.

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