Social media can be a powerful tool in the wake of a public tragedy. Social media activity following the horrific attacks in Paris has illustrated this — users received real-time news and updates via social media; families and friends of loved ones used social networks to help identify or locate missing persons; Facebook launched its Safety Check feature to enable people in Paris to notify friends and family that they are safe (and drew criticism for not applying the tool in other areas of disaster); and Facebook users changed their profile photos to the colors of the French flag to show their support.

But as a nonprofit communicator managing your brand’s social media networks, how should you respond online to a public tragedy?

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. Each situation differs and requires you to think critically and carefully about how to proceed on social media. However, here are three best practices your nonprofit should follow when talking online following a public tragedy.

It’s OK to Stay Silent

When a tragic event happens, it’s normal to want to express our feelings. Think about how that expression may be perceived coming from a brand (yes, your nonprofit is still a brand). Sharing a response to a tragedy, even though it may be completely genuine and well-intentioned, may come off as opportunistic.

When you’re not sure how to respond to a public tragedy, and there is no demand for your brand to respond, it’s ok to say nothing at all on social media.

If you do decide to post something, make sure it’s sympathetic, informed and considers your audience’s perspective. You may even consider gut checking with a peer or consultant to make sure you’re not unintentionally offending anyone. Nike did a great job extending its sympathy to the Boston community following the Boston Marathon bombings while still relating its message to its brand.


Prichard is not shy about sharing our love for social media management tools like Hootsuite, Buffer and Edgar that allow nonprofit communicators to preschedule and automate posts. However, when a community is turning their full attention to a tragic event, be sure to pause these posts and stop any social media advertising. At best, your automated post can appear irrelevant and oblivious. At worst, your post could be taken out of context and appear very offensive, like these tweets from epicurious following the Bostonepicurious-boston-tweet Marathon bombings. That’s how brands wind up on these common lists of social media fails—it goes without saying that you do not want to end up here!

Even if you are in the middle of running a campaign, yep, you should pause that, too. It may disrupt your perfectly coordinated communications plan, but pausing your campaign will be better for your brand than moving forward with potentially insensitive messages.

Most importantly, never use a public tragedy as an opportunity to solicit donations, generate email sign-ups or ask for “Likes.” Unless your nonprofit is aiding in disaster relief or helping mend a tragic event, you should steer clear or asking for anything during this time.


Following a tragedy, listen to online conversations to determine when is a good time to pick-up your campaign or normal routine on social media. Listen to what your followers, peer organizations and funders are saying, which will help guide you on if it’s appropriate to begin promoting your work.

Above all, remember that a public tragedy is just that. It’s tragic. People value people who behave with respect and kindness in these situations—and your nonprofit’s social media presence is no different.

What other best practices would you share for nonprofit communicators responding to a public tragedy?