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How to respond to an unexpected news event

Watching The Grammys just hours after the devastating helicopter crash that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other people, it was impossible not to be moved by the touching tribute with which host Alicia Keys opened the show. After a few short, powerful lines which included “we’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built” and “we never imagined in a million years we’d have to start the show like this,” Keys joined Boyz II Men for an emotional performance of It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.

Although Grammy organizers only learned of the heart-breaking news hours before guests were scheduled to take their seats, they quickly re-scripted and re-staged their opening. Their pivot was highly effective, enabling the many people affected by the tragedy, both in their audience and watching at home, to respectfully honour Bryant. It also enabled the glamorous and celebratory event to continue as normal, albeit with a sombre undertone.

Following the death of a celebrity or other unexpected news events, brands and organizations often quickly turn to social or paid media. Recently, when Prince Harry announced he was stepping back from his role as a senior Royal, Tim Horton’s quickly tweeted: “No pressure, Meghan and Harry, but if you do choose to move to Canada, free coffee for life. Think about it.” It was a spectacular miss. The backlash from offering free coffee for life to a couple worth millions was immediate and widely spread.

Many companies are exceptionally skilled at finding opportunistic angles to lever news stories that are getting significant attention. When the “Peloton Girl” commercial generated intense criticism on social media for being sexist and elitist, Ryan Reynolds’ Aviation American Gin company quickly pulled together a clever, and extremely well received response ad – the Peloton girl being consoled by close friends over a glass of gin. It was a brilliant marketing play.

It is reassuring to see that, so far, brands and organizations have largely been measured in their response to Kobe Bryant’s tragic death. Planters made an astute decision and announced it would be pausing its #RIPeanut campaign, created to retire its popular 104-year-old mascot. In an upcoming ad, the mascot was scheduled to sacrifice himself to save his friends after crashing near a cliff. Although the #RIPeanut hashtag had already been widely shared on social media, Planters prudently stopped all campaign activities so its sports-loving fans could grieve the loss of a beloved athlete.

To avoid negative attention and a potential backlash on social media, here are some guidelines to consider when determining how to respond to an unexpected news story:

- Stop all pre-scheduled social media, PR and marketing posts.

- Put up a company post or tweet that expresses sorrow and empathy but make sure it doesn’t also promote or sell your product.

- Steer clear of doing a branded memorial. These are often inappropriate and in poor taste. For example, even though Prince eschewed alcohol, several alcoholic beverage companies created ads and tweets that levered the famous musician.

- If you don’t have a genuine relationship to the celebrity who passed or the event that happened, don’t force or create one.

- Respond quickly but take enough time to carefully craft an authentic, empathetic message.

Ultimately, demonstrating sensitivity in the face of tragic or unexpected news will do your organization or brand far more good than a hastily prepared opportunistic tweet or ad that will be viewed as trying to selfishly profit from a tragic situation.

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