Social Media and Tragedy: What BlogHer Does and Why

72 hours ago, I was working from home and saw my first tweet about the the Boston Marathon bombings. Only I didn't know it. The tweet was commenting on a Boston Globe reporter posting a picture of an explosion and saying "we are doomed." From my media-obsessed perspective, I actually thought it was a commentary on the Globe being sold.

Within just a minute, I realized I was wrong, and that something horrible was going down near the Boston Marathon finish line. In just moments, there were photographs and on-the-scene comments flooding Twitter. A few minutes later, I went to BlogHer's internal company chat app to alert our social media team that we needed to prevent anything that was unrelated to this incident's going out via our social tools. When I got there, I saw that our social media manager, Diane Lang, was one step ahead of me and already on it.

Sadly, we had gone through these motions before. Less than six months before. Because of Newtown. And two months before that, as Sandy ravaged the East Coast. And before that. And before that. And before that.

Signs hang throughout Boston remembering those injured and killed in the Boston Marathon bombing. (Image: © Ken Crane/

When disaster and/or tragedy strikes, BlogHer makes this call: Discontinue any scheduled or auto-sharing; discontinue unrelated tweeting, Facebooking, pinning, plussing, and more. Including headlines from all our many topic areas. Including promotional sharing for brand campaigns. We shut it down. And when we shut it down, we alert every BlogHer employee that we've done so, so every individual can be mindful about what they choose to share themselves.

All that said, we have not defined a hard line of when an incident crosses over from something we are reporting on into something for which we come to full stop on everything else we are creating and sharing as a company. I can't imagine trying to write the guidelines that would draw that line, trying to put a number on sufficient loss of life, trying to create a scale of sufficient damages.

What we have found, though, is that it is easy to figure out when an event has become the center of our community's attention: the power of the social web will always be about listening, not just broadcasting. And at BlogHer we feel a deep responsibility to that listening. You don't need an incident to become a trending topic to see that it's consuming your community's mental and emotional bandwidth.

So we step back and shut things down. And then we listen, we watch, we do our own reporting, and we wait. But mostly, we listen . Until we feel we can start to turn things back on. After Newtown, we stayed dark on unrelated topics for almost two days. There are no hard-and-fast rules, except to review the content we are about to promote in the context of the mood in the community: Will our non-news social media content be welcome? Are people ready for other conversations?

We don't want to be the organization blithely talking about children's crafts, while our community waits to find out how many children have been hurt or lost in a school shooting. We don't want to be the organization promoting a great deal on athletic gear while our community waits to hear from their friends and relatives at the marathon. Unfortunate topic collisions such as these are every social media programmer's worst nightmare. And, often, the community that witnesses these clashes will speak out, turning their sights on easy things to address -- the unaware and tone-deaf social media users alike -- when the rest of the world feels impossible to manage.

I understand this reaction. I have felt agonized watching social sharing continue, seemingly oblivious to real-time events. But I try not to jump to conclusions, and I try not to add more negative energy into my social space when we are already struggling.

Next page: A Checklist to Consider as News Breaks

For us, it's the right call to be mindful and purposeful when sharing in the wake of such events. And since it's our job to help brands or customers navigate the social web and make a positive impact in our community, to give them counsel and advice, we also believe it's the right thing to do to help them be just as mindful. We act first; we act quickly. Then we give our customers a heads up about why that tweet won't go out, or that post may not go live right away. We actually think that's part of why they pay us.

We've seen a lot of confusion and discussion within our own community about what we, as bloggers, should do, so we've put together a specific checklist of actions we take -- and for you to consider taking -- when tragic news is breaking.

Social Media Checklist When Bad News Breaks
  1. Disconnect your automatic and scheduled posts, both to your blog and your social media, as soon as you can. If you are out of town or away from computer, see if you can at least get a friend to send a tweet saying so. (It's a really smart idea to have a backup admin plan in place for all your media, especially if you have brand-related promotional posts scheduled, since any backlash could be toward both you and the brand you're paid to represent.)
  2. If you are working with brands, notify them that you are doing so, so they can adjust their schedules accordingly. Let them know that you are monitoring the situation and that you will resume as soon as you deem it safe for the brand message to go out. Be confident that you have been hired as a consultant because you know your community, and that your counsel in tough situations is as important as any other advice you may give.
  3. Speak from the heart on the events, if you're moved to do so.
  4. Don't force yourself to speak on the subject, if you're not moved to do so. It's OK to be quiet. Social media is probably pretty loud right now.
  5. Avoid making a public announcement that you're being sensitive to the tragedy. Though feel free to take action (sharing resources, asking helpful questions, mobilizing community).
  6. Retweet news items judiciously. Be a journalist and ask yourself: What is the source? Are multiple news sources saying the same thing? If you choose to share something unconfirmed, note that it is UNCONFIRMED.
  7. Avoid publicly judging others' use of social media or defending or trumpeting your own. Let it go. Everyone's emotions are strained during times of crisis, and pausing before jumping into the fray can be an act of kindness to everyone.
  8. Let your social media streams and your own sense of judgment be your guide as to when you return to regularly scheduled posts. What you usually blog about is very relevant: If your blog is about running marathons, or Boston travel, for instance, it may take longer for you to resume regular posts, because your content will be more sensitive than, say, a food blogger's will.
  9. Review your regularly scheduled posts for inappropriate wording and images -- in this case, "explosion," "bomb," the metaphorical use of "marathon" all would probably best be avoided.

I hope this checklist, in whole or in part, is helpful to you as you make your decisions. Below are some more thoughtful discussions and tips on this topic. Please do add your own insight in the comments.

More excellent ideas and interesting discussions

Elisa Camahort Page 

My BlogHer profile truly shows you everything I do online...Check it out!!

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