How to Respond to Tragedy on Social Media

Julie Davis
Marketing Health Services E-newsletter
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Key Takeaways
  • Only use social media to comment on a tragic national event with the intention to inform or offer support, and provide links to outside sources of information.
  • When events involve a health crisis, be sure to keep the tone of your communications supportive and nonjudgmental.
  • “Marketing and effective media communication are so important in counteracting stigma. It’s a major, major public health issue. … [Marketers] just need to emphasize the right things.”

Tragic, highly charged current events often spur national discussions on social media. Some health care marketers see these instances as an opportunity to tie their health-related messages into a national discussion. And just as incorporating these emotional events into social marketing initiatives can become a PR nightmare for brands, health care organizations, too, can risk potentially alienating consumers and damaging their organization’s reputation.

“Marketing and effective media communication are so important in counteracting stigma,” says John Greden, executive director of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center. “It’s a major, major public health issue. … [Marketers] just need to emphasize the right things.”

For health care marketers, using a sensitive current event to help bring a health care issue into the spotlight is essential, Greden says. Here are a few tips to make sure you develop a respectful, constructive marketing message on social media.  

1. Carefully evaluate if it fits with your brand identity. If a topical message isn’t consistent with your current social marketing strategy, then there is no real need to comment. Sometimes silence really is the best option, says Alex Hinojosa, vice president of media operations and strategy at Wesley Chapel, Fla.-based EMSI Public Relations. When an important event happens, brands should halt what they’re doing—including automated social media posts and sometimes even ongoing advertising campaigns—and evaluate the situation before making a move, Hinojosa says.

2. Focus on being purely educational. If your organization has important information that the public should hear related to a tragic event, it’s appropriate to offer it up, but share it in a way that is purely education focused, Hinojosa says. While it can be a challenge for some marketers, it’s important to avoid the hard sell in these moments, he says.

Andrew Stephen, assistant professor of business administration and marketing at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business, agrees: “The better content approach for health care marketers is just to start with providing information.” Providing links to outside sources of information is the most credible way to do that, he adds.

3. Simplify your message. Jeri White, executive director of Seattle-based Southeast Youth and Family Services, encourages health care marketers to make sure their message and tone is reassuring and nonjudgmental. Health care marketers within the mental health sector, especially, should make sure that their messages acknowledge the sensitivity around the issue and inform the public that help is available, she says.

According to Greden, health care marketers should keep their message simple and avoid general terms. Even the term “mental health” can carry cultural connotations or stigma. Instead, focus on specific symptoms of a disease or health issue, he says. Symptoms are more concrete and make it easier for the audience to self-identify if they have a problem. “It’s a lot better to be matter of fact, descriptive and very straightforward,” he says.

4. Be present. While offering up information through social media may be a health care marketer’s only way to be involved after an event occurs, it’s important to be present in the community if a local tragedy happens, White says. In White’s neighborhood, a car recently ran into two local businesses. Several people were present at the scene, so she and a staff member offered on-site counseling to anyone affected by the event.


This was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Marketing Health Services e-newsletter.


Author Bio:

Julie Davis
Julie Davis is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. She can be reached at jdavis@ama.org.
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