For PR professionals, recognizing the line between being proactive and being tacky, or even disrespectful, has usually been more art than science.
When major national news breaks, some companies see an opportunity to promote their brand via social media. It is an avenue that was not always available, and some are clearly still struggling with it. This year has provided us with evidence of what works, and what turns the public against you.

The Good – Dunking in the Dark

When the lights went out during Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, many Americans took a trip to the nearest six-foot sub. Meanwhile, the ad team for Oreo went to work creating, and tweeting their now famous “You can still dunk in the dark” graphic.

It was arguably more successful than the 30-second commercial the company paid millions to air.
Part of what made the Oreo graphic work so well was the circumstance. The blackout was a rare case of breaking news watched by hundreds of millions of people that did not result in significant harm. This was a company adopting its tag line for a quirky national story, and it became a nice distraction while the country waited for more football.

The Bad – McDonald’s Public Outreach to Charles Ramsey

The Cleveland kidnapping story and Charles Ramsey’s heroism captivated the country. After Ramsey passingly noted that he was eating at McDonald’s when he saw a kidnapping victim trying to escape, the fast food giant tweeted their respect plus a promise to help Ramsey.
The company is now dealing with accusations that it was opportunistic in its use of social media.
McDonald’s generated the backlash for several reasons, mostly related to the last phrase. First, where Ramsey was eating at the time of the kidnapping was tangential, at best, to the story. That makes any commentary from McDonald’s feel forced. Second, if McDonald’s wanted to reward Ramsey, they could have done so without such a public proclamation. Finally, the still-evolving story was so serious that anything aside from compassion and congratulations would be controversial.
Had McDonald’s simply saluted the courage demonstrated by the victims and Charles Ramsey, it likely would have avoided much of the criticism.

The Ugly – A Food Website’s Poor Taste

The day after the Boston Marathon bombings, food website Epicurious, owned by Conde-Naste, commented on the tragedy by suggesting Twitter followers check the scones recipe on their site as a tribute to Bostonians. Shortly after their social media feed expressed public outcry, Epicurious issued an apology.
The timing of the Epicurious tweets was terrible. The nation was still grappling with what happened, and suspects had not even been identified. But even if the tweet had been sent weeks later, it still would have been in poor taste. Dozens of people were killed or maimed, and the brand was seen as using a tragedy as an opportunity to drive web traffic.
Before sending that tweet or Facebook post, here are three questions a PR professional should ask themselves:
Is the underlying story positive, neutral, or dark?
Will this appear to be a genuine sign of caring, or as a gimmick?
Is this disrespectful toward someone suffering?
The demand for instant news and communication means you do not have the benefit of taking long to deliberate on whether something is a good idea, but there is always time to ask whether what you are about to say will be insensitive toward others and harm your brand.