Social media makes it easy for brands in every industry to weigh in on the national news cycle — but that doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea.

It’s a cycle with which we’ve all become too familiar: tragedy strikes, the world reacts, and social media is flooded with emotional tributes to the victims and families impacted by whatever mass shooting, terrorist attack, or natural disaster has claimed innocent lives.

Relatively speaking, we’re only a few years into the age of social media, and yet the way in which brands and individuals respond to such tragedies has already been boiled down to a science: a #prayfor____ hashtag emerges, custom graphics are created, photos are overlaid with the flag of the country in question, and brands around the world take to Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook to express condolences and urge politicians to take action.

But when companies weigh in — whether apolitically or with an impassioned, partisan plea — it can be jarring for followers who are accustomed to much less politically charged messaging from their favorite brands.

The NRA Versus… Apartment Therapy?

Take, for example, this post from Apartment Therapy. Apartment Therapy is a website that covers all things home, garden, and interior decor. Let me be clear: I love Apartment Therapy and regularly pin the site’s gorgeous photos and genius organizational hacks. But crafting a response to the Parkland, Florida, shooting using a tenuous tie to the site’s “home” theme feels forced, and maybe a little inappropriate.

I’m torn, though, because I myself agree with the anti-gun sentiment that this post is promoting. But do I think it makes sense for Apartment Therapy as a brand to comment in favor of gun control, as if all of the site’s employees and readers agree? That’s where I start to feel uneasy.

It seems that I’m not alone in this thinking: according to a study from KRC Research, if a controversial issue is not directly linked to a company’s fundamental business, fewer Americans think it’s a good idea for companies to take a stance.

Gun control is most certainly not tied to Apartment Therapy’s fundamental business. But do I have the authority to say whether a brand should weigh in when it comes to national tragedies and the tense policy debates that often surround them? No. Every case is different, every brand is different, and every incident warrants a different response.

For brands that do wish to weigh in, let’s take a look at few things you can do to carefully navigate the social media minefield and avoid an utterly tone deaf public relations debacle.

1. Check What You Have Auto-Scheduled

Before you get to work crafting a post to acknowledge or comment on whatever story is dominating the news cycle, take a look at your scheduled posts, and consider pausing your regularly scheduled content. If every single Tweet in a consumer’s feed is related to a tragedy or natural disaster, your brand’s tweet touting 25% off sale items will likely feel intrusive and inappropriate. Consider hitting “pause” for at least a day or two.

2. Don’t Be Tone Deaf

Perhaps the only thing worse than an off-topic social media post is one that hits closer to current events without actually addressing them. Take, for example, Amazon’s “cereal killer” tweet that appeared shortly after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. This massive snafu could have been avoided had someone simply checked the retailer’s scheduled content and elected not to post anything that day.

cereal killer bowl

3. Consult Executives Before Taking a Side

If your brand does decide to weigh in on particular policies or politics, make sure company stakeholders are on board. It should not come down to a junior or mid-level social media manager to determine what comments are appropriate during a given news cycle. While social media demands speedy action, it’s worth keeping your tweet or Instagram caption in the wings until company leadership signs off on the sentiment behind it.

4. Do Not Promote Anything

It might be tempting to look for a way to tie the incident to your business. But consumers aren’t stupid — they’ll call you out if your post is too much of a stretch (as in the Apartment Therapy example), or worse, promoting a product.

Take foodie website Epicurious, for example. The brand took to Twitter to express their condolences to the families of the victims of the Boston marathon bombing. But they couldn’t leave it there — oh, no. Instead, the brand included a totally unnecessary and overly promotional recipe link, presented as the “breakfast bowl of energy we could all use to start the day.”

national tragedy epicurious

Just…no.

As a rule, do not allude to any products or attempt to drive traffic back to your website when sharing thoughts, prayers, sympathy, or condolences to those impacted by a national tragedy — unless you are a news outlet actively covering the event.

5. Consider Contributing More That a Post

If your company truly feels compelled to get involved in the issue or incident at hand, consider going beyond social media and making a meaningful contribution that stands to benefit those affected. In the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting, for example, airline JetBlue went above and beyond social media activism by offering free flights to Orlando for immediate family members and domestic partners of the victims. According to Jetblue’s website, the airline also made a $100,000 donation to OneOrlando Fund and established a crewmember donation channel.

Rather than issue a divisive statement on gun control, Jetblue found ways to make a tangible difference for the families of the victims, setting themselves apart as an engaged, tuned-in, and compassionate brand in the process.

The Bottom Line

I can’t say for sure whether your brand should take to social media to comment on mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters. What I can do is encourage you to carefully consider whether it makes sense for your brand to do so, and if it does, how you can make a meaningful contribution that sensitively addresses the issue at hand.

Author Grace Stearns

A graduate of Pepperdine University, Grace has worked in PR and brand communications at publishing giants like Condé Nast, Hearst Magazines Digital Media, and Simon & Schuster. She writes about content marketing, social media, and technology for L&T's blog. A reluctant West Coast transplant, Grace lives in Brooklyn and spends a majority of her free time curled up with a good book.

More posts by Grace Stearns