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The Paris attacks: how to react as a brand?

These kind of events trigger our personal emotions. We know the city, we have loved ones living there. It hits us in the heart and in the guts. It’s a natural reflex to want to express this emotional outburst. But it is not always fitting to do it as a brand.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

November 13th will forever be marked as a gruesome day in Paris. A city that I love and visit regularly. A city where several of my friends live or spend their weekends. Some of them were just around the corner of the Bataclan. Another friend recently ate at the attacked restaurant. I cannot express how relieved I was to hear that everyone was safe and sound. That my tribe was still in one piece. 

It’s logical that you want to express your feelings of sadness and frustration. That you want to express the feelings of your co-workers and customers. However… this can easily come across as a way of using the momentum to gain more attention for your brand. A marketing move that tastes very bitter. A good example of social management gone wrong was 3Suisses’ (an online retailer) reaction to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. So how should you react as a brand? Let’s start with external communications.

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Do not piggyback on personal drama. Just don’t.

If your brand is not personally affected by the attacks, it’s safer to stay out of it. We are talking about thousands of people whose lives have been altered forever last night. Because they lost a loved one. You using this situation to come across as a brand that is “humain” and “caring”… is just nasty.

So, what qualifies as personally affected for a brand?

One of your employees (not their family) was killed (not wounded) in one of the shootings. An official “our toughts are with his/her family” message is fitting in this case. Please be respectful: talk with them, send them the message and ask them if they are ok with this. It wouldn’t be the first time that an employee didn’t feel respected at work or was already considering leaving their employer because they were not feeling ok within the company. You publishing something without the family’s consent would only add to the sadness of the family.

You have offices and employees in the affected areas. In this case you can publish a small declaration saying that your team is very sad because of the events. That your thoughts are with the victims and their families. Say how glad you are that your team is safe. If the events have an impact on your business dealings (closed of areas, trucks not coming trough) please mention this in this statement and say that you will publish an update if the situation changes.

If there is a possibility that you cannot deliver your normal level of service (because of goods not being delivered, trucks being blocked at the border) please inform your customers upfront. Send them a little message saying that you are looking for solutions. Express how sad you feel about the inconvenience but that this one is out of your hands.

The events affect your customers greatly. You have a restaurant in Paris, you are a supermarket in Paris, your customers are truckers who are stuck at the borders of France, you are a railway company offering connections to Paris, etc. In this case: express your sadness for the events, aknowledge the frustration, inform them about the current situation (do not speculate! if you do not have any information just be open about it). Say that you will post an update when there is more news. Mention a hotline if you have one. Consider hiring a freelance crisis communication manager if the impact is more than you can handle.

Your business is all about France or Paris. You run a bar called Montmartre. You have a French cheese shop. You only sell French design. Ok, in this case it’s fine for you to express that you are grieving with the French. But by all means, do not use any of your products in your message (= commercial) or combine your logo with any of the public support images (f.e. the peace Eiffeltower sign we’ve seen in the past days or the Je Suis Charlie sign we saw in January.) Take a neutral image: a candle, a cuddle, the Eiffel tower, etc.

None of the above? Stay out of the kitchen.

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Realize that what you are feeling is your PERSONAL emotion. Your brand is a persona too.

You are human, we get it. Feel free to express your emotions on your personalsocial media profiles. But ask yourself how “fitting” it would be for your brand persona to communicate about these attacks. And in which tone of voice it would communicate.  You are speaking as a BRAND.

Never mix politics with business.

Things that are a big no-no: “fear shall not rule us” and  “the terrorists won’t get us down”. Never mix politics with business. Before you know it you’ll have discussions on your Facebook walls / intranet pages about how this is all the fault of muslims or that gun control is obsolete. You were not attacked by terrorists. You are not the one living in fear in the streets of Paris… this kind of recuperation is just vulgar. You are not watching a football match where you have to pick a team and shout their slogans.

Careful with religion

#PrayforParis might be catchy on Twitter, but it doesn’t fit in a professional setting. Nor does “God Bless France”. Not all your employees might be religious, or they might adhere to different beliefs. Our belief systems are part of our personal spheres. So keep your business messages neutral. This is especially necessary when you are communicating towards an international community that is for sure a mixture of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.  Express a stronger message: peace and compassion.

So onto internal communications….

Offer a platform to express the sadness and shock.

If you are a small company with lots of employees who are French-speaking, or who are travelling/doing business a lot with France: have a small coffee moment on Monday morning.

If you are an international corporation that has offices in Paris, does a lot of business in France, etc. you can place a short message on your intranet pages expressing your sadness, saying that all your employees are safe and that your thoughts are with those affected. If possible make sure people can place comments under the announcement so they can express their condolences. P.s.: use a very neutral picture for your message. Stear away from politics and religion.

If one of your employees was affected by the events (he/she is severely wounded, he/she died in the attacks, he/she lost a family member in the attacks)

Publish a personal obituary on your intranetpages (again: consult with the family first!), make sure people can express their condolences both online and on paper (go to the nearest supermarket and buy a nice notebook where people can leave a personal message). Make sure that the colleagues get professional support from psychologists, HR departements and find support within their teams. Announce when the funeral is taking place and that colleagues can attend (if the family wishes so!!!). Offer your support to the family too: offer to pay for unexpected high costs, offer them access to your corporate psychologist, etc. Mark the day with a big red marker in your calendar for the upcomming years. Send a little card or flowers on the anniversary of the event. Close colleagues can organize a rememberance dinner with the spouse, etc.

To finish: be humble

So… you had already scheduled a social media campaign that said “Cupid shoots straight in Paris” (auwch.) Or you posted an emotional reaction last night on your social media outlets, and now your community is turning against you because the message came across totally differently.

Don’t do what 3Suisses did: stubbornly replying that “really really our intentions are pure.” Be humble. Say that your intentions are pure, that you made a professional misjudgement and say you are sorry. Customers do not torch companies that express a humble “mea culpa”, they know that brands are run by people too, and they will forgive you. They will however make a big deal out of it if you do not listen to the feedback they are giving you.

Let me end by expressing my hope that I will soon find the Paris back the way I love (and hate) it: noisy, bustling with activity and with a big “Je m’en fou” attitude.

Lien De Leenheer

Freelance Digital communication and Digital collaboration consultant
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