These dark days we experience together—another school shooting, a terrorist
attack nearby or across the country—challenge our collective conscience and
our practice as communicators.
What is a given organization's responsibility, in these moments, to add
value to the online conversation happening in real time?
If we have the opportunity to help our communities feel safer and be better
informed amid chaos, shouldn't we? When do we have the right to weigh in?
A more important question, perhaps, and one addressed far less: When is it
our organization's responsibility to stay quiet?
What is "going dark"?
Go dark: To not be able to be reached by standard means of
communication (i.e. phone / email / txt) for a several hour
period —Urban Dictionary
The term can reference
online anonymity or disappearance.
In the military, it's used to describe a communication that appears to have
ended but that has actually moved to a private space, where it can't be
monitored-much like the dark web or
I would argue that "going dark" on social media is one of your most
important and most underused brand strategies.
Too often, I see national conversations unfold across my Twitter feed as
unexpected, arguably irrelevant organizations jump right in. Companies in
food service, pop culture, manufacturing or B2B sales feel they have carte
blanche to offer their "thoughts and prayers"—but to what end?
Most of the time, this added commentary not only does not add
value, but it makes your organization appear opportunistic and insensitive.
Instead of increasing goodwill, it results in sarcastic responses from fans
and risks reputational damage.
So, when should you weigh in? What difficult conversations does your
organization have the right to join?
When it's hyper relevant
Relevance is a moving target. It's defined as "closely connected or
important to the matter at hand," so it's your responsibility to determine
(often case by case) when a national story or tragic incident is close
enough to your organization's raison d'etre. Here are the
most common connection points I see:
Connection to your geography
The small Oregon town of Roseburg was turned upside down in the
span of 10 minutes.
The day of the Roseburg Community College shooting was a blur of media
updates and emails among my colleagues and me. Should we, or shouldn't we,
share words of condolence on our social media sites?
That morning I quickly drafted an internal message to my fellow communicators,
asking that they suspend pre-scheduled social media posts in light of the
Given that ours was a fellow
Oregon school, and given our satellite nursing student body being only an hour's driving
distance from Roseburg, it soon became apparent that our institution should not stay
The next morning OHSU campus flags flew at half-staff, and we shared a
simple message of solidarity and peace with our followers and with the
community of Roseburg.
Connection to your industry
Imagine another oil spill off the coast of Louisiana: Cities, local
governments, food industries and ecosystems are wiped out.
Although it isn't Chevron's spill, what responsibility does that company
have for contributing to the online conversation? What good can it do,
without using the event as a competitive advantage or vacuous advertising
It's a tough, important conversation to have with your executives. Tempting
as it might be to jump in with a tweet of shared sympathy, you must
approach any calamity with utmost sensitivity.
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Connection to your customers
Perhaps a soldier comes home from a combat zone and is unable to access
crucial mental health services. This veteran is very ill and acts out
violently in his or her community. The story makes the news, and USAA Bank
considers whether to weigh in on this sensitive online conversation.
There is no "right" or "wrong" in these instances, but I would argue that
it is absolutely appropriate for USAA to express its nonpartisan "thoughts
and prayers" with the victims and the larger community affected. USAA is a
pillar brand within the veterans community, and such a tragic event would
intimately and uniquely affect its customers.
When it's about shared values
REI asks its customers to "opt outside." When a national park is under
siege or a local town is battling over environmental policy, REI could
reasonably opt in to that online conversation.
Would it, as a company, be wise or think it appropriate to engage in
political discourse? Perhaps not. Could and should it offer messages of
advocacy and encouragement concerning the issues that mirror its company
values and the values its customers hold dear? Absolutely.
When you can make it even a little bit better
Working at a teaching hospital in Portland at the time of the Sandy Hook
shooting taught me a lot about how to "add value" to online conversations
We knew, from colleagues who were parents, that they felt anxiety about
picking their kids up from school that day: "My daughter will hear about
this on the radio on our way home. What will I tell her? How will I make
sure she feels safe?"
We reached out to the mental health team at our children's hospital, which
put together a blog post called, "How to talk to your kids about tragedy
and trauma." It became an important and widely shared resource for the moms
and dads across our social media channels.
There are instances when your organization should speak up, times when
you'd let down your fans and followers if you didn't acknowledge a
significant event or publicly share this hurt.
When it doesn't concern you, though—when the tragedy is outside your
purview, has little or nothing to do with your brand values or your
customers' day-to-day experience with your organization—keep your "thoughts
and prayers" to yourself. They can do more harm than good.
A final word for social media managers
Consider yourself a steward of your communities in hard times. You must get
out in front of challenging communication situations.
Even before the shock and sadness have worn off for you and your teammates,
you should draft an internal email asking fellow communicators to pause
prescheduled content and hold back on sales pitches or inappropriate ad
copy that could come off as callous or clueless.
Ask them not to use the event's trending hashtag. Ask them to revisit their
campaign images and outreach timing. Ask them to go dark, because that is
how your organization shows real leadership and true empathy in times of
A version of this article first appeared on
Connect with Jessica on Twitter @JessColumbo and at