Automated social media tools can be perilous for small businesses in times of crisis

As someone who was a Bostonian for 16 years, including eight years spent living two blocks from the finish line of the marathon and five years right on the race course itself, when I saw a headline online a week ago today about explosions at the finish line, my heart raced. I immediately turned on the TV and continued to watch for hours as the drama unfolded, just like I had done on September 11, 2001. But unlike on 9/11, this time I also stayed glued to something that didn’t exist in 2001 – Twitter – where I read a constant stream of eyewitness and news media updates.

I was stunned to see that amidst the tweets about the carnage, there were also tweeters carrying on as if nothing had happened. They were continuing to hawk their products, services and latest blog posts as though the streets of my beloved city were not covered in blood. I cannot begin to tell you how furious this made me.

But I quickly saw that other people were tweeting back at the clueless crowd and telling them to stop their tweets. The first tweet of this nature I saw pointed out what the real problem was; it said, “Anyone who hasn’t turned off their automated tweets should have done so 10 minutes ago when this news broke.”

It was a relief to realize that people, including several I know personally – not just through Twitter – weren’t insensitive clods. Instead, they were being done in by the automated social media management services they use, such as Hootsuite or Tweetdeck, that update their Twitter, Facebook and other social media feeds as per a pre-set schedule.

There is no denying these services are super handy, but as Monday’s events proved, they can also be super dangerous if you forget you have them turned on when something horrible happens and everyone tunes in to Twitter. Here is a story about the backlash one organization felt when a disaster occurred at a RadioHead concert they had organized and their automated tweets kept encouraging people to come out for the event kept going out, mixed in with their “live” tweets telling people the concert was cancelled.

I don’t use an automated service for my tweets so I was not in danger of being thought of as a jerk on Monday. I deliberately avoided tweeting or posting to Facebook anything business-related until three days after the Boston terrorist attack. This may have been overly cautious, but given my history with city and the fact that I still have many friends living and working there, it felt like the right thing to do. When things heated up again on Friday and the city was on lock-down, I also did not tweet about business.

The chief lesson here is that social media only works if you are part of the conversation with people. If you’re talking about your business while everyone else is talking about a horrible disaster or other breaking news of great interest, you will lose all credibility and may even generate antipathy toward you and your business. So make turning off your automated social media the FIRST item on your agenda when you hear news of any crisis, whether it be in your town or across the country or even across the world.

Finally, here’s an article my blogging colleague Karen Utgoff brought to my attention that points out another Twitter faux pas that some companies have made…using trending keywords about a disaster to try to bring attention to their products. This is callous beyond belief, but apparently since major corporations have done it, it bears pointing out that this is a definite no-no.

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