Company response to tragedy: how to be empathetic, supportive and helpful

June 15, 2016 CONRIC PR

It’s been a tough past few days in the United States. Times like these, when our country is overrun with sorrow, anger and fear, it is easy to get swept up in it all. Oftentimes, it is difficult to know how to react and what to do as an individual, and even more so as a business. How can your company respond, take a stance, express empathy, ensure the well-being of its employees and somehow make a difference to those who have been affected by tragedy?

Here are some ways in which you can accomplish all of these in a thoughtful, respectful manner.


As soon as a tragedy occurs, people will start posting about it on social media. As a person, you might do the same to extend support and communicate with others about it. However, before posting anything on your company’s social media or website, ask yourself: what is the appropriate response?

Sometimes, as a company, the best response is nothing at all. As the old saying goes, if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything. Huffington Post gathered a list of the most cringeworthy 9/11 tweets from brands (if you would like to see some examples of what NOT to do). Taking down all scheduled postings for the day can be a humble and genuine way to honor the moment. Additionally, make sure to double-check your most recent posted content and read it from the perspective of someone who’s hurting as a result of the tragedy. Would it be offensive or upsetting to that person? If so, take it down.

If you decide to respond to the tragedy, remind your followers that there’s a person behind your handle, and show them that every brand tweet isn’t an attempt to capitalize or make money. Don’t use brand hashtags, brand-oriented photos, or any other branded details that take away from the genuine nature of the message. Write something that brings a human into your post, such as a quote from your CEO expressing sadness over the event. Additionally, use retweets to your advantage. Above all, be genuine, meaningful and express sincere condolences without any semblance of company promotion.

Launch Squad has a great post going into more detail on this topic.

Taking a Stance

In the days and weeks after the event, it is important to continue extending support to those who have been affected by the tragedy. This goes beyond a simple statement of support (which is still nice) but not as helpful for followers. By keeping up-to-date with trending topics on Twitter, for example, you should be able to find links to share as a way for followers to help out. An article in PR Newser used the example of #BostonHelp and #HandsOverHearts, both which began trending right after the Boston Marathon attack. These hashtags were utilized when linking to the Red Cross and Salvation Army. In this case, linking to these sources not only generates support and awareness for the event, but gives your followers the opportunity to take action in some way.

Another way to take a stance in the aftermath of the event is to create a related charity drive, campaign or website benefitting and helping those affected by the event. However, this MUST NOT directly benefit your brand in any way; it can only be philanthropic. The Harvard Business Review has an article detailing how to create an effective and influential cause-marketing campaign.

Being Empathetic

The power of recognizing, understanding and communicating emotion is severely underrated, yet in the face of a tragedy, emotion can become an almost universal method of communication. It is important to practice empathy not only in the event of a tragedy, but regularly in the workplace. A recent Forbes article delved into the topic of empathetic leadership, stating that “people just want to feel heard, appreciated and understood.”

Moz has a fantastic post about how to ensure an empathetic social media strategy in times of tragedy. Most importantly, remember that your brand and your community are both made of people, all of whom have emotions. Recognizing this and communicating empathetically can go a long way.

A quote that epitomizes empathy, from Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame, is applicable to this topic.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Ensuring Well-Being

Looking away from national tragedies for a moment, there are personal tragedies that occur more regularly to people in your workplace. Death, sickness, financial issues and more can unfortunately plague your coworkers. And, of course, national tragedies can negatively impact those we work with, as well. Even for those who are not directly affected, events like these can have a significant impact, leaving people feeling a range of emotions including anger, frustration, vulnerability, confusion and sadness – all of which are normal reactions, according to the American Psychiatric Association. It is extremely important to ensure that resources are provided to help employees cope with tragedy, whatever it may be.

Common suggestions to help cope with stressful life events include exercising, listening to music, spending time with loved ones, relying on a faith community, journaling and practicing meditation or yoga.

Additional coping suggestions from the American Psychiatric Association that are more pertinent to national tragedies include:

  • Take control of your exposure to media. Keep updated with current events, if you’d like, but be mindful of overexposure to news, or to reaction and discussion on social media. There is much we cannot control, but we can take control of our own media consumption and digest the events and information at our own pace.
  • Maintain routines. Maintaining normal daily activities – regular healthy meals, exercise, sleep routines – can be very helpful for both mental and physical health. While extreme events often lead us to break routine, this is a time when routine can be especially helpful, so it’s important to get back to them when possible.
  • Remember you are not alone. If you feel anxious or overwhelmed, remember you are not alone. Find supports and talk with friends, family or peers. Reach out to your faith community.
  • Help children cope. Children may also be affected by the events and media coverage. Children recognize when their parents are distressed and that can make them feel sad or worried. Parents frequently underestimate the impact that events and their own distress have on their children.
  • Get help. Feelings of fear, sadness and anger following a traumatic event are natural. If you find that you are overwhelmed or experiencing physical symptoms from stress – like headaches, poor appetite and insomnia – or if you continue feeling depressed or anxious, you may want to see a mental health professional.

Upworthy has an inspiring article listing 11 ways you can feel less helpless after a tragedy, especially after this week.

Making a Difference

Sometimes, giving back to the community can be one of the best ways to feel better. This doesn’t necessarily mean donating your money. Instead, donate your time to an organization you’re passionate about a volunteer. Volunteer Match can be a great way to find a nonprofit that needs you. Additionally, why not have a company-wide volunteer day?

Huffington Post listed seven key behaviors of people who make a positive difference in the world. Read this, and try to emulate these behaviors in yourself. Not only will it foster more empathetic behaviors for you, but it can do so in others.

Here are some ways that you can help those who have been affected by the Orlando mass shooting, provided by USA Today and CNN:

  • Equality Florida, a nonprofit LGBT civil rights organization, has set up a GoFundMe account for the victims and their families.
  • The Center, an Orlando-based LGBT advocacy group, has started a GoFundMe page, with proceeds to benefit the victims of the shooting and their families.
  • The global nonprofit organization Planting Peace has set up a site for donations on CrowdRise.
  • The National Compassion Fund, overseen by the National Center for Victims of Crime, will equally distribute funds amongst victims and their families for short term and long term needs.
  • Mosques heeded a call by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to raise money for victims’ families and did so through LaunchGood, a Muslim-led crowdfunding site.
  • Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer announced the creation of the OneOrlando Fund in response to the Pulse tragedy. This fund will focus on strengthening the Orlando community and, through the foundations supporting this effort, will help victims of the shooting and their families.
  • Vigils mourning the dead were held throughout the United States and other countries on Sunday. Participate in more vigils to take place in communities across the USA.

Unfortunately, tragedies happen. That, however, does not mean that we can forget how to be empathetic and help others, even through our companies and brands. Harnessing the power of your company for change and to support others can be incredibly powerful, if done correctly.

To close, we would like to quote recent Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, who dedicated his acceptance speech to those lost in the Orlando shooting.

“And love, is love, is love, is love, is love, is love, is love, is love, cannot be killed or swept aside.”

APA Resources:

Information on mental health – Visit the APA’s patient/public education pages for more on mental illness, treatment and coping.

Disaster Distress Helpline – Call or Text

  • Call 800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
  • For texting support in Spanish, text Hablanos to 66746.
  • (operated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)

Find a psychiatrist – Locate a psychiatrist in your community.

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