I'm not an ethicist. But you don't have to be an ethicist to understand these simple words:
During a crisis, the soul of the organization is revealed.
(I paraphrased this from Ogrizek and Guillery , who said "corporation" instead of organization.) The longer I observe the profession, the more I believe it to be true: when the pressure is on, it's hard to hide your true colors.
The recent Boston Marathon bombing is a case in point. The crisis brought out the best and worst in people, and public relations/marketing practitioners on Twitter were no exception. The interesting thing about the cases I'm about to describe is that none of the people were directly involved in the crisis.
First, the obvious: during every crisis there are people who try to hijack Twitter for personal or organizational gain. There's the scammer who created a fake account with the message that every retweet would result in a donation to the victims. Moreover, Gigaom.com reports, Twitter relies on all of us to police this kind of behavior. Now there's news that someone is using Boston Marathon video as a Trojan horse to try to install malware on your computer. But just as bad, to me, was Epicurious, a food website that unbelievably recommended that we eat cranberry scones in honor of Boston on the morning of the attack, and helpfully provided a link to this recipe in case someone else's tragedy makes you hungry. These cases are just so wrong that we shouldn't even be discussing them, but since it seems that someone blunders every time there's human tragedy, I guess it has to be said.
There are less obvious ways to mess up during a crisis. I'd noticed during other crisis situations that people and organizations who continue posting scheduled tweets when everyone else is talking about the crisis look unaware at best, perhaps even unfeeling. Almost as soon as I heard the news from Boston I tweeted that people should stop scheduled tweets. More than 20 people retweeted it and others commented or favorited it, pretty much all in agreement. However, marketing guru Guy Kawasaki's account kept tweeting things like "12 fun facts about tulips" (what Kawasaki did after someone pointed out that it was inappropriate is a whole other story).
The one person who disagreed with my tweet pointed out that "if you aren't in a position to help, carry on," but I disagree. This is NOT to say we should all go dark and go home, but scheduled tweets jump out as completely irrelevant to everything else in the Twitterstream and just look insensitive. (I know that it takes a while for people to learn about the tragedy, but in some cases autotweets were still going out 3 hours after the news broke.) Kristina Weis offers good advice on how to Tweet when sad news breaks, beginning with an acknowledgement that something has gone wrong and then offering links to relevant news or information that can help others. Another source points out that, if you aren't involved, you don't have to tweet about it all, and probably shouldn't.
If, as I believe, the soul of an organization is revealed during a crisis, how you behave on Twitter is a reflection of your organization's culture and worldview. For instance, I read in several places that Epicurious is blaming an intern for posting its remarkably inappropriate tweets, but -- if that's true (a lone source said that Epicurious wasn't commenting on who did it, so people might just be assuming it was an intern) -- both the policy of allowing interns to tweet with so little guidance and the effort to make it better by blaming the intern speak volumes about the corporate culture.
People respond in different ways in a crisis. But think about the people involved instead of promoting your organization or yourself. As John R. Bell tweeted about tragedy posts this morning, "If you're thinking, 'how can this tweet make us look good,' you need a course on ethics and #CSR."