How to Respond to a National Tragedy

Like you, my heart and head are heavy in the wake of Friday’s tragedy in Newtown, CT. Especially since I feel so helpless.

My gut is that’s how many of your supporters and prospects are feeling as well, and what will be top of mind for at least a couple more days. So be respectful and responsive, even though you’re pressured by the year-end push for support.

Here’s how to communicate best post-catastrophe:

1) Stay relevant
Put yourself in the shoes of your prospects and supporters. What are they focused on now?

Whatever it is, that’s your cue. Your own agenda must fall behind right now.

2) If your organization isn’t working to help the Newtown community or others affected by the tragedy, take a couple of days off from your asks
If your cause doesn’t make the cut, asking for support or action may even have a negative impact.

Like the as-if-it-never-happened email I received from a statewide children’s organization on Friday afternoon, urging me to support its work with children but making no mention of the morning’s atrocities. Or the two I received Monday from arts organizations.

I believe in these causes, but they seem irrelevant today, and are likely to tomorrow. Try me again in a couple of days.

3) Show you care
What you should do is show your support for the Newtown community and empathize with the shock and sadness your supporters are likely to feel via Twitter or a brief Facebook post.

Social media is an ideal way to let your supporters know you’re with them right now, and to share words of comfort. That’s the kind of response that puts a human face on your organization.

This morning’s post from the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. is a good example of appropriate communication right now:

4) Even if your org’s cause is directly related to the tragedy—gun control, better care for those with mental illness, anti-violence, caring for children—still wait a couple of days to ask

Those in support of your issue are already making contributions and circulating petitions. But it’s all too raw to start persuading others, or even showing them how they can help avert future disasters like this one. 

Instead, craft your outreach for later in the week so you’ll organize most powerfully,  galvanizing disheartened supporters to join you in action for a better future.

The exception, of course, is if you’re helping the Newtown community directly, or care for children and must comfort parents by sharing your safety policies.

5) Whatever your issue focus, review and hold what’s already queued up to email or post on your blog for the next few days.
Hold in most cases. And before you send later in the week, see if it makes sense to integrate a mention of the shooting (only if it’s relevant, not to exploit it, of course).

I’d advise placing review of queued-up communications at the top of your crisis communications checklist, whether it’s a crisis within your org or outside of it. Automating outreach is a lifesaver, but also a potential snafu at times of crisis. It’s auto-schedule, not auto-pilot.

I’m sure the emails I received Friday afternoon and yesterday were cued up last week and not reviewed before sending. As a result, I received these “business as usual” communications, at a time when nothing was usual, which caused a huge disconnect.

Stay real, and stay respectful. That will ensure your relevance in good times and bad.

Here are some concrete ways to support the Newtown community right now.

How are you changing your outreach in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting? Please share your plans here.

P.S. Get more concrete guidance, tested templates and tools, and in-depth case studies for nonprofit marketing success via the free Getting Attention e-news. Subscribe today.

Nancy Schwartz on December 17, 2012 in Strategy | 16 comments
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  • Michelle Van Engen

    Thanks for covering this Nancy. This is something we haven’t formally put into our communications plan yet. We had informal conversations at work and chose to postpone our scheduled Friday afternoon social media post and offer our condolences instead. Our reasoning was that there is a human behind the keyboard who felt a very powerful emotional response that couldn’t be ignored. It wasn’t as clear how this tragedy would impact our e-mail plan for this week, so thank you for discussing the appropriate timing.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    What is your plan for this week, Michelle?

  • Hi Nancy. This is a much-needed post. I also think it’s important to address how to handle social media in the aftermath of these tragedies. Organizations will not benefit by simply going dark after these events (social media is real-time), but as you mention – organizations cannot function as-if-it-never-happened and must allow for their own missions to not be the most top-of-mind causes for a little while. In terms of online communications, I think it’s a critical time to display human sentiment and show that coming together for a cause is important (namely and usually, the causes brought to light in a tragedy)- and I think social media can be a good platform for that. I don’t think organizations need to be (or should be) “loud,” but must remember that above all, this is a time to be real and sincere – especially in real-time, ongoing communications. Addressing it is indeed a way to remain relevant. Thanks again for writing about this topic. I’ve also experienced quite a few organizations conducting “business as usual” without being contemplative of current events. I’d be interested to hear of any social media-related words of wisdom that you’d recommend .

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Hi Colleen,

    You’re so right that just as we can’t stampede over supporters’ feelingsmto drive our own agendas home, we can’t ignore the shooting.

    As you suggest, tweets or brief Facebook posts of support for those who are shocked and saddened in your own community, but most focused on honoring the Newtown shooting victims are a good way to empathize right now.

  • Laurie

    Couldn’t agree more, Nancy. And I also agree with Colleen here about not staying silent on social media. I kept checking certain Facebook pages on Friday, looking for their reactions, hoping for words of comfort. Many of these groups were slow to react at all. And then I saw the business as usual posts that really turned me off as well. I understand how it can happen when people use auto-scheduling. That’s one reason I rarely auto-schedule and never do it very far in advance. Many pages I follow have returned to regular posting today, but I’m just not there yet.

  • Michelle Van Engen

    Nancy, to answer your question, we had already continued our emails today before I saw your post. Now, we’re adding this lens to our crisis communications plan so we can involve the right people in determining if we should pause e-mails or other communications.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Thanks for the update, Michelle. Please keep us posted here.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Exactly, Laurie, on the problem with auto-scheduling. Thank goodness there’s rarely an occurrence like this one but other things also effect scheduling. Guess we need to remember that we can’t be on auto-pilot when we auto-schedule!

  • Randy

    Nancy, I like this advice and have reposted it on my Facebook page which targets nonprofits and businesses. Thanks for all of your insights, ideas and advice over the year.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Great, Randy! Thanks for spreading the word.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Colleen, I just saw this tweet from the Salvation Army and it’s a great example of what you suggest—reaching out via brief social media messages to share your organization’s support for the Newtown community, honor those slain and offer words of comfort to your supporters. They are helping out in Newtown and, very appropriately, mention that here:

    @salvationarmyus: The Salvation Army appreciates your support & sends our thoughts & prayers to those impacted by Friday’s tragedy.

  • Andrea Kaitany

    One of the blessings of a small non-profit is that nothing is automatic! We raise funds to support education for girls and young women in rural Kenya so we work a lot in public schools there. We simply posted a brief statement of condolence on facebook and held off with everything else for a few days. We will post a somewhat normal blog post tomorrow, but nothing that will touch on sensitive issues because our organization doesn’t deal with school safety or weapons; they aren’t an issue where we work. So important not to exploit the situation as a “selling point.”

  • kristin

    I enjoyed this blog! I take care of the social media for NeighborWorks Columbus and I have been curious about the very things you mentioned. Thank you!

  • Terri Chastain

    Nancy, as I’ve come to expect from you, you offer wise, well-thought-out guidance for nonprofit organizations. Thank you for helping us know how to act with grace.

  • Sara

    Thank you for this advice on how to continue to do our jobs while our hearts are breaking. I had the difficult task of launching a social media campaign for an event that happened on Friday night. Locally, 60 people raised more than $20,000 in pledges so that they could dress up in Santa and Elf costumes to sing carols at 10 local restaurants. There were groups in 9 other cities too. We decided that since the volunteers worked so hard to raise these funds (mostly for children’s charities) that we would go on even though our hearts and minds were with friends and families in CT. Our first posts aknowledged this sentiment. I toned down following posts yet continued since many people were following so that they could meet up with us. I will wait until the weekend to send follow-up emails and posts to our supporters. For my “day job,” I have gone silent this week since two schools in our sevice area are locked down because of threats and we still grieve a school shooting 6 years ago. Many other non-profits are doing the same in this area (northwest VT).

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