How should organizations respond to national tragedy?

How your nonprofit can overcome bad press

I have a journalism degree from one of the top ten journalism schools in the country. Some of my best friends were in the broadcast sequence and, upon graduation, took jobs with local news stations across the country. Some of them producers, others as anchors, a few as reporters, and even a sports guy – I’m so proud of all of them.

On Wednesday, August 26, my heart sank when I woke up in the morning. A crazed disgruntled former employee took two lives on live television – something that hasn’t happened ever before. Immediately, the Internet exploded with videos of the broadcast, and within a few minutes, the gunman began airing his grievances on social media – even going as far as to capture the event on cell phone video and sharing it with his networks.

I can’t fathom, as a viewer, what that was like. When you live in a small market, the local news teams become a part of your family. You see them around town; you like them on Facebook; you watch them every morning with your family as you’re all prepping for the day. And someone did something to soil that. He not only terrified those watching, but all those who could have been watching. The terrifying reality is that this could have happened everywhere.

So many people jump to conclusions on his motive. Gun control. Mental illness. Racism. Whatever his motive, there is one thing that’s completely clear: our society behaves so strangely when a national tragedy strikes.

I’ve managed social media accounts during a lot of national (and some international) tragedies. It’s never easy to respond personally, and it’s certainly not easy to respond professionally. But in an effort to remain authentic in your social media strategy, it’s so important that you react to instances of national tragedy. Here are a few filters you should consider when formulating your messaging:


Do you actually know what’s going on? The problem with new and social media (and the media’s desire to be the outlet that breaks the story) often doesn’t leave room for fact checking. As a personal rule, I typically wait until there’s been an official press conference to formulate my messaging. This ensures you’re not reacting to an internet hoax or exaggerated reporting.


Do you have a personal reaction to this tragedy? There are criticisms that companies use tragedy to get attention on social media. It’s totally okay NOT to react to something that you don’t personally connect with. Remember the bottom line here: BE AUTHENTIC. Quietly sympathize if it isn’t something you connect to.


How will this make your audience feel? You should always strive to give your audience hope in a tragic situation. You must be so careful not to make matters worse – posting graphic photos, insensitive words, or incorrect information is just going to stir the pot and cause controversy. Acknowledging the pain of others is often enough. (Example: Our thoughts are with you, WDBJ.)


Does this tragedy affect your particular industry or community? God forbid, but if your organization has a relationship with those affected, it is 100% okay to offer your social media accounts to providing information. For example, if your community experiences a natural disaster, sharing information about shelters, assistance, family reunions, etc. is a valuable add. However, you should ALWAYS make sure that your posts are adding value.