Catalyst Branding

Knowing when and how to use Twitter in times of national crisis

April 21, 2013

Last week was a very bad week. It started on Monday with one of those “I’ll always remember what I was doing when … ” days, with the bombings in Boston.  Along the way, we had the disaster in West, Texas, another example of the cowardice of congress in Washington, Maggie Thatcher’s funeral and a major earthquake in China. It ended with the citizens of Watertown cheering the police after they successfully captured the 2nd bombing suspect alive. What a week.

As the week unfolded, I watched how the people I follow on Twitter managed the way they communicated. I found myself reacting quite intensely to the range of messages, sometimes very positively and often quite negatively. The whole process was quite educational for me. I also had the chance to talk through my impressions with a few of my clients over the course of the week. Here’s what I learned.

The beauty of Twitter is that it allows us to share our views real time with an audience that we’re building a relationship with. Sometimes a dialogue ensues. Sometimes our views are simply shared.

People who use Twitter well, understand that the same rules that govern communications in real world communities also apply to the virtual communities of followers and the followed. The people I follow who communicated effectively during the past week demonstrated an intuitive understanding of how and when to share their tweets during a period of national mourning. On that first day, these folks used Twitter to share news, clear up mis-communications and to express their feelings of horror and sorrow for the victims. As we moved into the second day, they tweeted encouragements and shared hope to help to get us all refocused on how important it is to remain fixed on what makes us special as a nation while we mourned for those who lost loved ones.

As the week unfolded and we turned back to business, those I follow did the same.  Slowly at first, demonstrating an appropriate respect. The most successful re-engaging messages were those that shared observations or called attention to interesting learning. They were not directly commercial.

Then as the FBI identified the suspects and the manhunt ensued, those who were most successful went quiet. Once again, tweets sharing information and clarifying misinformation were most welcomed and helpful.

Unfortunately, not all of the people I follow evidenced a smart and successful use of Twitter this week. The intensity of my reaction to their communications behavior surprised me. Many of my friends and colleagues shared the same negative reactions. The whole thing taught me much.

There is a time and a place for the sharing of certain types of information. Groups have largely unspoken rules about when these communications are appropriate and when they are not. When members violate these standards, the reaction is usually quite negative.

Such was the case for me when it came to two types of tweets this week. First, I reacted quite negatively to those who chose to blindly continue to convey their standard commercial messages on Monday & Tuesday after the bombings.

This tragedy helped to distinguish between communicators and shouters. It is my sense that those who continued their commercial message aren’t communicators. They’re just shouters. They use this valuable communications medium just like traditional broadcast advertising. They continued to advance a message without intending to start a dialogue and without a thoughtful regard for how their message would be received.

I imagine my reaction to their messages was the exact opposite of what they hoped it would be. They made me angry and I shared that reaction with my friends and colleagues. We all felt the same. These people stepped over the line. It will likely be a while before I respond positively to their subsequent communications.

I found a second type of tweet even more infuriating than the first. These were from the communicators who tried to use the events of the week to enhance their commercial standing. The offending tweets would acknowledge the horror of the event and than ask followers to re-tweet their views or direct them to a website to market an offer.

I was surprised at the intensity of the negative reaction from my friends and colleagues toward those who attempted to use misfortune to advance their commercial cause on the Tuesday following the tragedy.  Clearly, this practice violated an important rule of communications etiquette.

In the net, what I learned was that during times like these, there’s very little room for advancing our commercial causes. First of all, no one is really listening. Their attention is focused elsewhere on more immediate matters.  Secondly, those few who are actually listening could possibly be offended by our behavior and react negatively to our message in a way that actually works against us.

My lesson – if you want to share your feelings about what has transpired then go ahead. But, if your desire is to advance a commercial cause, wait a few days until your targets are ready to receive your communications again. In the end, it’s simple. If the communications behavior is appropriate for your relationships with family and friends, it is appropriate for your community on Twitter. If it isn’t, then it isn’t.  Don’t waste valuable opportunities to communicate with people important to your cause when it might actually work against you.

Posted under: General