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Business Responses to Tragedy

by Ian Doescher


As a nation, we face tragic events regularly. Whether it is a natural disaster, a mass shooting, an outbreak of a deadly illness, or a terrible accident, we often find ourselves faced with moments of senseless loss.

As a business – to say nothing of individuals – it can be hard to know how to respond. Social media has introduced us all to the world of the immediate. Companies have the opportunity, and sometimes the privilege or responsibility, of commenting on tragic events shortly after they happen. There is, however, potential in these moments for companies to make mistakes. We are human, and sometimes we let what might be an appropriate individual response get in the way of an appropriate corporate response.

Here, then, are some dos and don’ts when it comes to responding to tragedy as a company, particularly on social media:


Things you can do:

1. Express sympathy. No matter what the tragedy, it is appropriate to say that your company and your employees are holding the victims of a particular tragedy in thought, in prayer, etc. A simple statement of sympathy is enough to acknowledge the tragedy and show you care.

2. Let people know you are raising funds to help. If your company has started a fund solely for the purpose of raising money for the victims of tragedy, 100% of which will be given to victims, it’s appropriate to let people know about that in case they are looking for a way to respond and want to donate.

3. Ignore it. Certain tragedies may be too complex to warrant a corporate response. With some tragedies, it is an acceptable response as a company not to comment on the tragedy at all on your social media channels. This shows your customers you don’t feel your company is the right voice to speak about a particular tragedy.


Things you cannot do:

1. Take any action that is remotely self-serving. In past years, companies have been burned on social media (rightfully so) by attaching their products or services to a particular tragedy. For instance, “Buy our product and we will give one dollar to relief for such-and-such tragedy,” is not an appropriate response. It is self serving in the face of loss.

2. Say anything socially or politically controversial. We all know certain tragedies in our country are surrounded by social and political landmines. Unless your company exists to work toward a particular social or political goal (i.e., you are a political organization), you have no business making social or political statements. Companies on every side of the political social spectrum have made this mistake in the face of tragedy and have been called out by their customers.

3. Ignore it. Yes, I know this was also on my list of things you can do. It’s also on my list of things you can’t do, because some tragedies are so overwhelming – in the depth of their loss – that to ignore them is be callous or irresponsible. For example, to post about your weekly sale on the day of an event like the September 11, 2001 attacks is unacceptable. Note also that if you schedule posts in advance, you’ll want to double check what is scheduled in the face of tragedy.

There is no perfect way to respond to tragedy, maybe especially for companies. We are human, and we will make mistakes. Hopefully these dos and don’ts help guide you. Do you have other thoughts about ways in which companies should or should not respond to tragedy? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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