TRIAGE: Social in a Crisis

What a year this week has been.

Whereas September 11th happened in a moment and changed everything, the COVID19 crisis is unfolding in slow motion. Doubt, anxiety, fear, rumors and facts are piling up with no clear end date. It’s a time where we have to compartmentalize to be our best selves at work but still have to make sure to be human in between.

I wish you all the best of luck both personally and professionally as we work through this. Please take care of yourselves. That adage of “putting the put your oxygen mask on first before helping others” applies here. So do it. And if you need to talk to someone, please do.

And then, assuming you’ve taken care of your immediate needs and those you love, let’s move to the next question.

As marketers amidst this crisis, what do we do?

During a crisis, your communications teams must remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We have to take care of the fundamental needs before we can work on higher-order challenges.

Forbes editor Marty Swant published this piece, “Amid COVID-19 Concerns, Marketers Large And Small Are Trying To Think Ahead,” and although the reporting is great, the summary from marketers is basically: We don’t know what’s going to happen.

So let’s take that to heart. Nobody knows what is going to happen. None of us want to be the fear-mongering doomsayers. None of us want to be the pollyanna optimist.

But there has rarely been certainty in this generation of interactive marketing. We have long sought comfort in change, and boy does it look like things are going to change in the coming year.

When we come out this crisis, the ones who win won’t be those who took unfair advantage of others, price gouged, or panicked. The ones who win when we come out of this will be those of us who approached the situation pragmatically, didn’t look for shortcuts, did the right things, and found opportunities to immediately pivot.

But… we have to hit the immediate needs RIGHT NOW.

With the unfolding COVID 19 crisis, I know we are all doing lots of thinking about how our brands show up in the immediate world: tone, messaging, paid ads, organic content, and actions.

Unlike a traditional crisis, this one is much more difficult to know when to hit pause on communications or when to proactively communicate with our consumers.

Short term, we should be thinking about things like language in ads or social posts and being mindful of media placements and copy/content that highlights travel/fun/health, uses overly positive messaging, or exclamation points. 

Basically, we should avoid anything that could be seen as tone deaf to a population that is increasingly stressed and unsure about the future.

The last thing you want is your company or client to have branded content held up as embarrassing or negative in a news cycle increasingly looking for victims, memes, and enemies.

It’s triage time.

From Adweek: How to Survive a Brand Quarantine During Coronavirus: This isn’t the time to run a scheduled campaign; strategies need to adjust

This will be a time when it will suddenly be glaringly obvious why certain agencies charge a premium for marketing and PR services. The bottom of the barrel marketers will keep marketing through this as if nothing is going on. Their posts will be tone deaf. They will not pause scheduled tweets or pre-written content for campaigns and will continue to market as if we were still living in a pre-Coronavirus digital environment.

The premium agency pros, however, will know now is the time to pause and reflect. Strategy means knowing when to stay silent just as much as it means knowing what to post and when. Clients may hem and haw and ask, “What am I paying you for if you aren’t going to post anything?” They are paying you because you know the difference between when to shout from the rooftop and when to be quiet…

Pause your scheduled tweets. Ramp up your customer service on social media. -Kristen Ruby of Ruby Media Group (

From Twitter’s Brand Communication in Time of Crisis: 

  • Know your brand: This is not about looking at what others are doing and copying. It’s about understanding the unique role your brand plays in people’s lives, how that has changed, and how your brand can help or be useful during this crisis. It’s also about looking for opportunities to lead by example, and do the right thing, where it makes sense for your business.
  • Keep up to date with what’s happening: Things are changing fast, what might have felt like a good message yesterday might not be the right thing today. Keep a close eye on the news and conversation, and be sure to consider the context before replying or broadcasting. And note, sometimes it’s better not to say anything at all.
  • Be thoughtful about tone of voice: Just like people, brands should evolve their tone depending on the context. Right now might not be the best time to be snarky or sarcastic, while empathy, understanding and even certain types of humor may go a long way.
  • Anticipate changes in your customer’s behavior: As people are potentially asked to self-isolate, or stay home, there will be a number of behavior changes that might impact their needs as well as how they interact with your business.
  • What might people need right now? 1) Accurate & Reliable Information. 2) Customer Service & Support.


Proactively, depending on the brand, there may be a need or opportunity to create and distribute messaging about steps the company is taking to keep customers, franchisees, and/or employees safe or promote services like delivery. These could be emails sent to existing customers, push notifications in-app, paid or organic social posts, internal conference calls, and PR meetings set up with key reporters, etc. Companies should already be working on this with their corporate affairs and legal teams but also consulting their agency partners on these communications.

Reactively, customer care centers and social media community managers need legal-approved scripts and guidelines for escalating issues. Again, companies should already be working on this with their corporate affairs and legal teams but also consulting their agency partners on these communications.

Overall, external and internal communications work best when they are coordinated. Having your brands loop your full teams (internal/agency partners/etc.) into conversations about their business will help everyone be a better partner. Try to over-communicate whenever possible.

It’s been an insane month. I’m supposed to be at SXSW hosting a 100+ person event tonight.

Instead, I’m working from home, worried about my family and team’s health, and thinking through worst-case scenarios for my clients.

I will again implore you to take care of yourselves before worrying about this marketing stuff. Having worked on enough crises in my career, I know firsthand how fragile we can be when it comes to staying strong in the moment.

If you don’t have anyone to talk to, please reach out to me. I’m no expert, but I will listen and try to help.

Next week we’re going to talk more about pivoting and rebuilding. This week, it’s all about the immediate.

See you on the internet!


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