Like many other Canadians, the first thing I did after hearing about a shooting taking place at Parliament Hill on Wednesday morning was to jump online to read news sites and Twitter.

After reading for a few minutes and realizing it was possibly an ongoing situation, I felt the gravity of the situation. On Twitter I was reading accounts of a soldier shot at the War Memorial and the confused messages of those in downtown Ottawa trying to figure out if they were in immediate danger. I realized that any social media postings from ITWC’s brand accounts would serve no purpose on a day like this, and worse yet, that any campaign-related material might seem insensitive. I decided to silence any campaign-related messages and allow for our automated headlines to be published, as our editorial staff was still producing content that day.

The experience made me reflect on how social media management of brand accounts is embedded in a volatile environment. When your promotional tweet could show up next to news about a shooting in progress, the utmost awareness of live events is required, along with sensitivity in responding to the situation properly. I wondered how other social media account managers handled the situation, so I spoke with several over the last couple of days.

Silence at Ministry of Labour

The Ontario Ministry of Labour also chose to silence its social media posting on Wednesday in light of the shooting. It was more appropriate to let more sombre news be the focus, says Bruce Skeaff, media relations coordinator and social media lead at the ministry.

“Crisis or not, you should always be aware of the environment of the day and what’s going on in the world, so you have some context for what you’re putting out there,” he says. “That will inform you as to whether you’re going to be more sensitive than you might normally.”

The ministry’s account did have some content planned for the day, like  promoting a video about health and safety at small businesses to coincide with Small Business Week. But Skeaff sent a directive to his team of six to inform them of the day’s silence. As a branch of government in the same country where another government was seemingly under attack, “we couldn’t pretend it was just another day,” he says.

The only other time his social media posting has been disrupted in such a way was when an election was called, Skeaff says. No other crises have occurred in his five and a half years at the social media helm.

“Silence equals indifference and can be seen by your followers as insensitive,” he writes in an email. “Such a tragedy touches everyone across Canada, including your customers and stakeholders. Commenting on the news in the form of expressing sympathy and solidarity shows you’re an engaged brand.”

Thoughtful review at Maverick

At Maverick, a marketing agency based in Toronto, the decision for a couple of consumer brands was to review the social media posts scheduled for the day, and let them continue.

“We’re always on top of the news, so in the event if something did come up that’s not sensitive in light of the news, we can take it down,” says Yasmine Kashefi, digital engagement manager at Maverick.

When Wednesday’s shooting was flagged, Kashefi went to her scheduler and saw that only one tweet was scheduled for the day. It was unrelated to the events and seemed fairly innocuous, so she didn’t delete it.

“If it was something related to Ottawa or the government, or our soldiers, that’s definitely a situation where we’d re-examine the content we were posting,” she says. Maverick has a process for flagged news stories that could cause issues, where staff members escalate communications up to a client to see if a reaction is needed.

Direct approaches

For Toronto-based social media coach Lina Duque, a message directly addressing the issue is the best bet.

“Silence equals indifference and can be seen by your followers as insensitive,” she writes in an email. “Such a tragedy touches everyone across Canada, including your customers and stakeholders. Commenting on the news in the form of expressing sympathy and solidarity shows you’re an engaged brand.”

In a crisis situation, especially one with national interest, holding off on social media campaigns can make sense, according to Jeannette Sutton, director of the division of risk sciences at the University of Kentucky. Sutton previously researched how social media was used immediately after the shooting at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and is currently looking at how public health institutions use social media to educate people about ebola.

“All eyes were turned to Parliament at that time [of the shooting],” she says. “If you’re trying to strategically put out information at that time, people will probably miss it.”

There is one type of organization Sutton says should be very active during a crisis incident – the authorities that are directly responding to it. On Wednesday, police and security agencies played a key role in passing on trusted information to the public.

The Ottawa Police account issued updates to its Twitter account about closed areas of the downtown core and asked witnesses to share information.

The RCMP national division Twitter account was also posting updates about the situation.

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