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When Speaking of the Unspeakable

When Speaking of the Unspeakable

About a year-and-a-half after 9/11, I moved into the closest residential building to Ground Zero. Even then, there were street vendors set up along the perimeter of the city-block sized crater, peddling Never Forget t-shirts and Twin Towers snow globes.

Years later, The New Yorker captured an updated take on this collective cluelessness at the 9/11 Memorial with its July 7, 2014 cover. Despite the painstakingly planned memorial, there will always be people who find opportunity in tragedy.

Back in 2001, social media as we know it barely existed…but if it had, I think it would have followed the same trajectory. Of course there would be the many, many people flocking to a shared space to give voice to their grief and express their support for compassionate acts, but there would also probably be the gaffes: the ill-informed employee who makes a hash out of a hashtag (as happened after the Aurora, Colo. shootings and, more recently in response to the #whyIstayed topic that was trending this week). The unity that we felt as a nation in those early days after the tragedy may have seemed more fractured as people took to their pages to vent their anger and sadness in political posts, like they did after Sandy Hook.

As it stands, 13 years later, most people have enough perspective on 9/11 to be circumspect when they share their thoughts. They choose to honor the rescue workers who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to help others, the families of the victims and, of course, the victims themselves.

Many businesses choose to commemorate the occasion on their digital marketing pages, as well, and they often do it in a way that feels thoughtful and sincere. For years, Google has pinned a simple black ribbon to its home page on September 11 (and during other times of mourning), and companies like American Express and Lowes have posted images that show they are not doing business-quite-as-usual today. (American Express lost 11 employees in the attacks and commissioned the serene and personal 11 Tears Memorial for their lobby at the World Financial Center to honor them).

Using your digital marketing pages to post about tragedy is always a fine line. On the one hand, you don’t want to be seen as the street vendors and selfie-takers. On the other, businesses are made up of people, and people took a collective vow to never forget. If you choose to comment on your business’s page about 9/11 or any tragic event, here are a few things to keep in mind to ensure that your posts convey your support without being viewed as self-serving:

-Don’t include your brand name. Learn from AT&T, which last 9/11 Tweeted a photo of Manhattan as seen through an AT&T phone (now redacted). Let your post be about humans sharing with humans, and keep your product out of it just this once.

-Vet and vet again. Before you post, talk to a few people whose judgment you trust to see if they can read anything into your post that you are not seeing. Most of the time, posts that bring the wrath of the web down on a brand’s head are really just someone not picking up on what other people will.

-Keep it simple. Choose a few words or a picture that expresses how you feel. You don’t have to be original or thought-provoking, just heartfelt.

-When in doubt, skip it: If there’s any doubt in your mind whether posting would be considered in poor taste, then it is probably best to confine your thoughts to your personal pages. If you feel guilty about letting the day pass without acknowledging it, you can always post that you are taking the day off from posting out of respect for the solemnity of the occasion.