What Happens to Public Relations Efforts During Tragedy?

It’s PR, not the ER. This is a phrase many of us in PR look to when deadlines seem unattainable and the workload is intense enough that our significant others, dogs and cats are asleep when we leave in the morning and we get home at night. It’s the reminder that while we are busy and passionate about our clients’ products and success, there is something greater out there. We work in public relations, not the emergency room.

One of the reasons PR people can be good at our jobs is that we treat every product, statistic, spokesperson as if it is the most important, most interesting thing. So, what does public relations look like during a crisis? During a time when even we have to admit that our priorities are not what’s important to the world? Last Monday during the Boston Marathon, and all of last week, was one of those times.

What should we do? Even if we have the world’s best pitch and we’re sending it to the sports editor, we stop. Save the email draft and wait. Even if the person’s beat is not hard news or crime, there’s the possibility that she might have been pulled onto breaking news for the short term to cover everything that’s happening. Not to mention, she is still a human being, and just as you are checking CNN every five minutes, she is too—glued to the TV, refreshing Facebook or Twitter for updates from friends and family that live in affected areas.

Also, if you are the manager of social media channels, there are two mistakes that we see people offended by over and over:

Tying sales goals or consumer engagement techniques to the tragedy

While we won’t mention brand names here, a few may spring to mind for you. We’ve seen stores tie sales promotions to Hurricane Sandy and during the riots in Egypt, another company claimed the riots were excitement over its spring clothing line.

Ignoring the tragedy altogether

Despite what we normally think about staying engaged, it is more than appropriate for brands to take a hiatus from social media during crises. No one will miss your Wednesday tweets about mid-week family dinners or Friday tweets about weekend plans. In fact, last week, we saw quite a few people take brands and public figures to task for being flippant or unaware.

It’s called Public Relations—our job is to build relationships—between ourselves and the media, and between the public and our clients. What faster way to destroy goodwill we’ve created than to capitalize on tragedy or misery? So stop typing and go watch the news with the rest of us.

Then, when the time is right, the storm has blown over or the perpetrator has been caught, resume your PR efforts, but do so with care, respect and the knowledge that the people you’re reaching out to, and their audiences, may have been personally affected.

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