Digital Platitudes

Marketing and communication professionals aren’t trained to be silent.

Today’s mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, is proof of why they need to learn restraint. Here we have yet another horrific event that prompted legions of brand managers to chime in with offers of condolences through their company-sanctioned Twitter accounts.

The sentiment behind tweeting condolences is kind and decent. It’s the rubber stamp, check-the-box application that bothers me.

In 2001, I was working as a web designer at an advertising agency. After September 11th, dozens of clients emailed me requests to add tiny animated GIFs of the American flag to their website as a show of support for the victims. I couldn’t turn down any of these requests and hope to keep my job, but each time I received one, I cringed. Not because I hate Americans and support terrorism, but because I knew these animated GIFs were lazy, half-assed attempts at sympathy that accomplished nothing long-term. The GIFs were non-tangible, noticed by no one, and unceremoniously washed away six months later during the next design refresh.

Tweeted condolences fall into that same category. Digital platitudes. Going through the motions in 140 characters or less.

Lisa Grimm has a smart, prescriptive post up today about how brands should behave on social media during a tragedy. Going silent, she notes, is an acceptable and effective option.

I would also challenge companies to answer two questions before punching lukewarm sentiment into the Twitter Machine: Is the company/brand connected to the community affected by tragedy? Has the company donated money, services, food, supplies, or supported the victims in any way? If the answer is yes to either (or both) of the above, then there’s a story worth sharing.

If the answer is no to both, then your tweet becomes generic white noise and data waste. I recommend embracing silence as a show of respect. Your messaging, in this moment, is irrelevant.