How to Use Social Media During a National Crisis

Chris Syme (@cksyme) is principal at, a consulting firm in Bozeman, Mont.

University social media community managers are often at a loss about how to handle regularly scheduled social media posts during tragic national events, such as last week’s Boston Marathon bombing and the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. Social media and live television coverage can bring the emotions of tragic events into our living rooms and engage the collective national attention in real-time.

When thinking about social media posts during a time of tragedy or sadness, it’s important to keep a few basic crisis communications tips in mind:

1.  Suspend promotional posts until the worst is over. Marketing your institution or patting yourself on the back during a tragedy can cause a backlash. Use common sense. However, if you have a major event  going on, such as an academic awards banquet, there is no reason not to cover it in social media as you normally would. Normality can bring comfort in the midst of tragedy.

2. Tasteful social media posts related to the event can show compassion. Messages of hope and support can be appropriate, especially from university leadership. Anne Kress, president of Monroe Community College in Rochester, and  frequent tweeter , sent several messages of compassion during the Boston tragedy including the following:


Shows of solidarity and support can be appropriate depending on an institution’s connection to the event or the location. The University of Notre Dame has a special connection to the Boston area because of their rivalry with Boston College, the only other catholic college in  Bowl Championship Series. To honor the city, the institution adorned football helmets for its spring game with a special shamrock decal that included the highly recognizable Boston “B”. The institution’s Facebook page also featured the decal as well.


3. Highlight events and posts that will facilitate calm and healing. Even though this sounds a little bit fluffy, remember that many in your audience–including students, parents and alumni–may be separated from family and friends. Tasteful social media posts can create stability and comfort in a tragedy.  When Neil Diamond showed up at Fenway Park to sing the anthem of Boston Red Sox fans (Sweet Caroline) college coaches, athletes and sports information directors retweeted the show of solidarity. Diamond flew to Boston on Saturday specifically to sing the song as a surprise to rally support for Boston.


4. Keep calm and carry on. People in crisis want to know that their world is safe, secure and going to be OK. Fight the temptation to tackle political issues related to the tragedy. This probably isn’t the time to post photos of people on the Boston streets celebrating the capture of bombing suspect No. 2. Remember that you have people of all political persuasions and ethnic backgrounds who follow your institution on social media and reside on your campus. Even though the conclusion of the Boston manhunt was cause for relief, showing pictures of people celebrating in the streets can bring fear to ethnic groups on your campus that believe they may be wrongly associated with the tragedy.

Social media can be a channel of healing and grace in times of tragedy. It can also be a conduit of fear, hatred and disgust if improperly handled. This could be a good time to put together a plan on how to handle your institution’s social media channels in a tragic event.

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