Communications in the Wake of Tragedy

By Vanessa Boynton

In the aftermath of tragic events, peppered among the grief-stricken are business owners, holding their heads in their hands and muttering, “We make our product to prevent things like this…

In a fog of sadness and frustration, they’ll call their marketing director with an order to get the word out now – fast – as far as he or she can take it. “People need to know we offer this,” they’ll say. “If more people know, if they find out right now, maybe we can stop the next one.”

There are a lot of advocates, businesses and organizations that make products or offer services that are specifically meant to prevent various forms of tragedy, or at least cope with it. Think safety apps for college students, alert jewelry or apparel, security software, grief counselors, or specialized attorneys.

They are understandably frustrated or surprised if they hear their marketing or PR team say, “We cannot, will not, share this message right now.”

But…what are they supposed to do? When is the right time to do it? And what if “later” is too late?



The right time to start thinking about post-tragedy communications is pre-tragedy. Your first priority is analyzing the stakeholders in your brand community – internal audiences, current and prospective clients/customers, partner organizations and vendors – and regularly communicating to them your value and intent.

If your product or service really does address some of the gaps that allow tragedies to sneak through, make sure those ongoing messages are supplemented by helpful services, like free tutorials, free webinars or events, free quick tips, and other practical information.*

*The emphasis here is on free.

If the success of your business relies on general public awareness, your next priority is an ongoing thought leadership campaign. Hold an internal story-mining session and ask:

  • Can we supply compelling data?
  • Are we sponsoring or speaking at any public events?
  • Are our spokespeople able to offer insightful commentary or a unique perspective?
  • Have we partnered with other organizations, perhaps to create an impactful public service?

If so, it’s important to begin developing positive relationships with journalists from local, national and trade publications that are covering relevant scenarios and trends. Read their work, offer your commentary, proactively supply them with news and insights, and listen to their feedback. Let go of the urge to make a fast grab at headlines, and embrace the lasting power of becoming a true resource.

Example: the ongoing U.S. opiate crisis. One strategic approach taken by a New England recovery center was to offer their chief medical officer and head clinician as media sources to explain the latest trends in treatment, as well as opine on solutions to help stave the upward trend. Resulting coverage in publications like The Boston Globe, WBUR, USA Today and Addiction Professional, built significant awareness of and credibility for the recovery center’s mission.



There is a “right message” to deploy as tragedy unfolds: condolences and best wishes for those involved. Put it on your homepage, post it to your social channels, send it as a handwritten note, but keep it simple and sympathetic.

If you’re itching instead to launch a promotion or introduce a new product, ask yourself: “Is this announcement going to help anyone but us?”

If the answer is no, and/or if the event in question is still dominating the news cycle, it’s the wrong time to get your brand name out there. You will be seen as capitalizing on a tragedy, regardless of your intentions.

Example: In December of 2016, Cinnabon committed a public gaffe by using Carrie Fisher’s death to promote its cinnamon rolls. While her passing was far less impactful than other forms of national tragedy, the mistake handily reminded everyone to leave product pitches out of their messages of condolences.  

When a comfortable amount of time has elapsed from the incident – generally 3-6 weeks – you’re welcome to announce your product, your promotion or your acquisition, but be especially careful about tone. And believe it or not, the right tone isn’t “sorrowful” or “eager”, but “straightforward”.

Skip injecting emotion – the events you’re addressing will speak for themselves – and unless you’re specifically working with local government, stay away from political messages. At any time, the most important pieces of information you can share are:


  • The ways your product or service helps others
  • The ways your customers/clients/partners can reach you
  • Any additional resources you offer and how they can be accessed


Your relationships with media will be critical at this juncture. They will decide whether or not to give you a platform, and that decision will largely hinge on the uniqueness or potential impact of what you’re announcing, your credibility as a “people first” company, and your reliability as a media resource and product/service provider.

In essence, it will be up to you to walk the walk that matches your talk.



Companies that provide products or services that address issues with health, safety and security face a continuous uphill battle. In addition to constantly refining and publicizing their offering, they must take extra steps, internally and externally, to reinforce the purity of the brand’s mission. Preserving the delicate balance of success and altruism is a lot of work, and it’s work that must continue even as heart-wrenching headlines reporting yet another crisis smatter the fronts of newspapers across the globe, over and over again.

The only way to get ahead of “too late” is to get that work done now, and always. It will require foresight, empathy, perseverance, a unified team and a sound strategy, but it will bring you and your customers that much closer to pushing back the next wave of danger.

Curious about crisis comms? Send us an email. We’ll be glad to help.