Bad brand behaviour in unprecedented times (+ tips to get it right)

In times of uncertainty and upheaval, clear and empathetic communication becomes more vital than ever. Here Liv McPherson, Senior Account Manager at Undertow Media, presents invaluable insights and practical tips on effectively communicating during unprecedented events that impact your community.

As the meme goes, we sure could do with some precedented times right now. But with climate change, natural disasters and pandemics featuring ever-more presently in our day-to-day lives, how is it best to respond to these shocking events in media (both social and traditional)? 

Senior account manager at Undertow Media Liv McPherson has dealt with a few ‘hell in a handbasket’ moments thanks to her former life as a talent agent and as an inhouse consultant, making her adept at doling out advice on how to navigate your and your business’ reputation in a time of crisis.

The planet, and more specifically New Zealand, has entered its Apocalypse Era of late with NZ having suffered a mass-shooting, a deadly volcano, an even deadlier pandemic, a devastating cyclone and flooding, and a flurry of earthquakes (that’s not counting the cataclysmic ones in Christchurch in 2011, pre-Instagram omnipotence).

One of the only silver linings of a catastrophic event, is that times of crisis can draw people together in a hugely significant way to support those affected. Unified in our response, it makes us aware of how effective communities can be when they cast differences aside and work together for common good #AllTheFeels

Social media can be a powerful tool when used to rally and mobilise people in a crisis response – it provides a platform for quick and efficient sharing of information, which people can use to channel their recovery contributions – whether it be fundraising, clean-up efforts or mental health support.

The flip side of that, is it also puts people’s responses to these situations under the microscope. 

How businesses and individuals react during tough times speaks volumes about their social awareness, capacity for empathy and willingness to help those in need.

How they use social media during these events, arguably their most public interface, is therefore crucial in communicating their values and priorities, and the action they are taking in the face of hardship.

Essentially, these times provide an opportunity for brands and content creators to put their money where their mouth is, walk the talk and lead by example. Or it provides a chance for them to absolutely yeet themselves off a cliff, taking their reputation and following or customer base with them.

For the “We Can’t Believe We Actually Have to Say This Out Loud” files, the online behaviour of some influencers and businesses as the world has been going to hell in a hand basket have proven that not everyone has a solid understanding of What Not to Post During a National/International Emergency. We have witnessed some glaring online faux pas’ (“absolute clangers” being the technical term), which should never have seen the light of an iPhone.

So as a quick refresher for influencers, if 51 people have just been horrifically murdered, it’s not the greatest time to put up a photo of you pre-loading for your Friday night at da club, if Auckland is in its fourth lockdown, with businesses shutting down daily and people being hospitalised or losing their livelihoods, don’t have a party and livestream it (don’t have a party full stop). 

And if half the North Island is underwater and people are tragically losing their lives, it’s not a good look to post a Reel of your spa day, or gloat that you’re on island time somewhere exotic. You get the gist.

And businesses, unless you are mandated by the NZX or otherwise, do not proudly announce your “profit jump”, or look distasteful with plays like holding a flash sale following the absolute annihilation by flooding of entire regions of the country you operate in. 

Do not smugly broadcast that your online sales have propelled through the roof when it’s clearly a knock-on result of pandemic-affected bricks and mortar retailers having to close down. Do not throw a lavish product launch replete with champagne and OTT gifts to the already privileged in the immediate wake of any National State of Emergency. And definitely don’t announce discounted advertising or products as a gesture of your support “during this sad time” or publicise that a portion of the profits you make today will be going to the victims of X crisis (this is known as “crisis profiteering”). 

At best, you look out-of-touch and oblivious to current events. At worst – you look vapid, ignorant, self-absorbed, unempathetic and very silly. We said what we said. 

When you respond or post inappropriately during a crisis on your social media channels, you run the risk of overshadowing all the hard work you’ve put into building your presence, and establishing connection with your online audience. This is something you need to protect at all costs.

So – how should you use social media for good in End of Days moments? 

Some general rules of thumb to keep in mind for social media – for both brands and influencers – when a community lurches into crisis mode, are:

  • Pause all scheduled content.  Suspend paid campaigns, or at least scale back. Any commercial posts will send the wrong message, and content written days or weeks ago will be off-tone
  • Content offering support and collaboration is best – but you can’t just post “thoughts and prayers”. If you’re offering support, what are you offering? Financial contributions? Man-power? Coordinating donations? Providing useful resources that you’ve vetted and can provide reasoning around? It has to be something tangible, not just good vibes
  • Check your website copy; prior posts, and your bio, to make sure they’re not oblivious to the current situation or saying something that can be interpreted the wrong way
  •  Monitor the situation and breaking news closely to stay aware of the latest developments and how it could impact your business and your customers or followers. Do not bombard them with messages/eDMs but put yourself in each of your stakeholder’s shoes, and create a bespoke plan that talks to specific problems, solutions, states of plays you are currently able to deal with. Divvy these up within your team and make any touchpoint as purposeful and tailored as you can
  • Avoid getting involved in any political or negative discussions unless you are absolutely sure you are informed and cleared to have these tagged forever to your brand/business (we would add, not just in times of crisis, but ever)
  • If you’re unsure about how to respond – don’t. If you react inappropriately or look like you are simply bandwagoning with no purpose, you could end up needing this blog
  • When you do decide it’s appropriate to post, rework content by adapting it to current events
  • Understand that sometimes it’s best to say nothing, depending on what the situation is and your proximity, understanding and ability to be helpful to it
  • Most importantly, be human. Treat others like how you would like to be treated if you were directly affected by the crisis

There are some utterly shining examples of people and businesses who have used their platforms and influence for good when we’ve collectively been brought to our knees. 

Influencers Jess Blair and Louisa Morely recently tapped into their network of business and brand connections to hold an Instagram raffle fundraiser for cyclone victims; Jess Molina made it her absolute mission to provide every helpful link and resource she could find in aid of flood victims on her Instagram Stories for weeks following the tragedy and @teao_p’s Waewae the 35 rallied the support and donations for Te Tairāwhiti after the cyclone. He raised more than $114k.

Media platforms including Whakaata Maori, AM, Stuff and NZME ran wildly successful fundraising events, amplified by social media, which raised millions of flood relief dollars. Groups such as NZ Venue Co held charity events and donation drives and Foley Hospitality staged fundraising dinners to support their suppliers in affected regions along with many others from the foodie scene. 

Not that we wanna jinx anything, but hopefully our apocalyptic days are shrinking in the rearview mirror. However we are still dealing with a cost-of-living crisis – inflation is at an all-time high – and a mental health crisis. Keep these things in mind when you go to post, and stop to pause and think about tone, timing and taste.

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