The first thing I see when I walk out my front door is the flag. It’s a large one, hoisted high upon a U.S. government building down the street from my condo. On most days it stands tall. On days like today, it sits a little lower.

It is days like today where the flag tells the story. Our flag, our national symbol, our rally cry, our anthem; it is a reminder of our strength and our promise. It has been there in our greatest victories and our most defiant moments; but on this morning, like too many others over recent years, it serves as a symbol of mourning and remembrance.

When tragedy strikes, like it did in Orlando yesterday, Americans lower the flag. We make an emblematic gesture to show our empathy. But what do corporate brands do when the unthinkable happens? Does the Burger King send a royal decree out? Does Siri offer some soft, robotic words of solace?

For most people, their flagpole is social media. They wake up and turn to their phones instead of their doors and windows for a glimpse of the outside world. It’s here that the brands we interact with every day reach back out to us. Yet, when faced with an event like we saw yesterday, with no relation to burgers or Buicks, how should corporations react?

First and foremost, they should acknowledge that something has happened. Audiences internal and external look for cues from the brands they follow. Whether that’s the passive acknowledgment of canceling any scheduled posts that might look insensitive in the face of horror, deciding to stay silent and let the moment happen, or offering a few short words of sympathetic thoughts with the victims,  business-as-usual looks rather crass when people’s lives have been turned upside-down, or even worse.

Second, but just as important, an event like an Orlando or a Paris is not an opportunity to get your product in front of new faces. It’s not an excuse to sell soda or satin sheets, and if that’s your only goal, silence is probably your best message. A misstep of 140 characters can take as many hours to walk back and fix. You may think any trending topic is a wave you can ride to the shores of likes and shares, but yesterday’s wave was filled with grief and sadness, not opportunity for a seemingly savvy social media manager.

Finally, human tragedy deserves a human response. We call our parents and siblings at the first sign of bad news. We text and email our partners to make sure they’re safe. We think of our friends and co-workers and hope that we see them again. We don’t offer a thought for the national chain down the street or the pharmaceutical company on TV. So why should they respond as if we do? Put a face on your sorrow. Show that your response isn’t about metrics and analytics, but the moment and the anguish that you as part of your community share with the victims.

Soon, the flags will be lifted again and we will be forced to move on. Perhaps just as soon, we’ll have another tragedy thrust upon us, with the questions of who and why. But for the corporate world, the question of what is just as important. What will you do with the flagpole you’ve been given, and what will your consumers see when they open their digital doors?

Anthony DeAngelo
Anthony DeAngelo

Anthony DeAngelo, senior associate director, media relations, leads external media engagement and thought leadership for APCO’s global corporate marketing and communication team. Read More