What to say when the world burns
Navigating your content strategy through challenging news cycles
When faced with a large-scale global event that dominates the news agenda, marketers often find themselves at a crossroads.
On one hand, we all need to keep our businesses running smoothly. For organisations that rely on traffic from digital marketing efforts, it’s not always feasible to go dark for sustained periods, and in today’s landscape, there’s no shortage of potentially triggering news.
On the other hand, keeping to your normal social media posting schedule in the face of significant global events— specifically those that involve large-scale suffering — can feel uncomfortable at best, and insensitive, tone-deaf, or offensive at worst.
But adapting your content strategy accordingly is a challenge in itself. Do you address the issue, or say nothing? Do you adapt the content going out, or stop posting altogether? Without any clear guidance on the matter, these questions are often left unanswered.
Ultimately, we all just want to do the right thing. That’s why, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide to navigating your content strategy in the face of challenging news cycles.
1. Stay informed
The first step is a simple one: you can’t remain sensitive to the news cycle if you’re not keeping up with it.
While it’s not necessary to brush up on every fact and figure pertaining to a specific issue or event, it is important anyone publishing regular content online is following the biggest headlines impacting society today. Those who aren’t risk posting something insensitive or inappropriate without even knowing it’s an issue in the first place.
You don’t have to spend hours doom-scrolling through horror after horror, but you do have a responsibility to your audience to be aware of what’s going on in the world so that you can navigate it with sensitivity.
2. Don’t be afraid to take a stance
There’s no pretending things aren’t bleak right now. Injustice, suffering, and environmental disasters are commonplace, and as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, it doesn’t seem like that’s going to change any time soon.
When presented with news that’s particularly upsetting or difficult to swallow, many organisations choose to say nothing at all. The reasons for this vary: often they’re scared of saying the wrong thing and damaging brand reputation, while other times they might not necessarily feel like it’s their place as a business to comment.
And yet, failing to take any sort of public stance when it comes to issues like the environment, social justice, and geopolitical conflict may actually do more harm than good. The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer shows 63% of consumers select brands based on their communicated beliefs, and respondents were 5 to 7 times more likely to fault businesses for not doing enough to tackle societal issues.
The takeaway for your business: it won’t always be right to comment on current affairs, but it’s worth considering whether you should before dismissing the idea altogether.
3. When you do take a stance, tread carefully
So, let’s say you’ve decided you do want to take a public stance. Now, it’s time to tread carefully.
We all remember the brands that got it wrong: Pepsi’s controversial ad which trivialised the Black Lives Matter movement, Dolce & Gabbana’s racially insensitive ad campaign in China, and Dettol’s post-pandemic campaign which wildly misjudged Londoners’ feelings about heading back to the office so soon.
These instances highlight the importance of approaching sensitive news situations with caution and authenticity. Anything you publish should be based on genuine values and beliefs, rather than a mere attempt to capitalise on the news cycle. If the following statements apply, chances are you’re well-placed to take the plunge:
- You’re well-researched on the topic you’re posting about and can cite reliable sources where necessary
- You’re saying something that contributes to the conversation, offers help and support, or explains your stance on the issue and why it’s relevant
- Your stand is coming from an authentic place, and you’re not using your post to promote a product or get more eyes on your social media profiles
- You’ve approached the issue with sensitivity in mind — most importantly, you’ve asked yourself how somebody in the group most impacted by the topic would feel upon seeing your post
4. Know when to say nothing
Brands that display empathy, social responsibility, and a genuine commitment to helping their communities are more likely to resonate with customers and maintain a positive reputation in the long run. But it’s also just as important to know when to stay out of a conversation.
It is not necessary to comment on every issue, especially if you don’t feel fully informed about it. Similarly, sometimes pausing your schedule altogether can be beneficial in the short-term. If you find yourself agreeing with any of the following statements, consider taking a break from posting until it feels more appropriate:
- Social media is currently dominated by this specific topic, so it’s unlikely anybody will see or pay attention to my organisation’s posts anyway
- I don’t feel well-informed enough to take a stance on the issue or comment on behalf of my organisation
- It doesn’t make sense for my organisation to add to the noise when it comes to this particular topic
- The content I was planning to post, though not necessarily connected to the news item, feels tone-deaf in light of the current circumstances
5. Assess your content regularly
For organisations that don’t feel the need to pause content altogether, it’s important to assess what’s going out on a regular basis until the situation has levelled out. You need to be auditing every post and its appropriateness — or inappropriateness — in the current context. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to carrying out this audit. It’s simply about using a mixture of common sense, empathy, and gut instinct.
When the world is burning, should you still launch that company milestone celebration scheduled for today? Probably not. In those instances you may have to reshuffle your calendar and wait for a more appropriate moment. General business updates or informational content, however, are unlikely to elicit vitriol, and can likely be posted as planned.
If there is any content you’re unsure about, our advice — beyond erring on the side of caution — is to ask for a second opinion. Seeking input from colleagues, external stakeholders, or even friends and family can provide valuable insights and perspectives. This can help you to identify potential pitfalls and ensure that messaging is inclusive, sensitive, and respectful.
The guidelines above are a great framework for navigating your content strategy in a way that does right by your reputation, your audience, and those impacted by the issues taking place around the world today. But, if you do need a bit of extra help along the way, we’re always here to chat.