by Michael O'Neill
December 20th, 2012

Every weekday a popular retailer in The US sends out an 11 a.m. daily deal email to subscribers. Yesterday there was no daily deal. Just a branded message to its subscribers, which said:

“For the lives lost at Sandy Hook.  We grieve.  We remember.  We honor.”

Then the brand listed all of the first names of the children killed in the Connecticut mass murder with a request for its subscribers to donate to the United Way of Western Connecticut.

I’m sure — in fact, I know — that the brands’ intentions were in the right place. Unfortunately, it was the wrong thing to do.

Imagine if you were the parent, grandparent, relative or friend of one of those murdered children and that email popped into your email box. Think about how you would feel. Can you imagine the utter anguish of coming across a promotional email published by a corporation using your loved one as the focus? Imagine seeing your daughter’s name beneath the brand logo.

Think about how violated you would feel.

Now imagine dozens, hundreds and even thousands of brands all doing the same thing. All of them sending emails, tweets, status updates and other missives with your daughter’s name attached to them.

Reprehensible, isn’t it?

This is why brands should resist the urge to publicly participate in national tragedies like Sandy Hook, especially when the news cycle is so raw and volatile.

How much better would it have been for that retail brand to have simply and quietly made a sizable donation to the United Way on its own.

There is no doubt that Sandy Hook is dominating the news cycle. Dominating our thoughts. Dominating our emotions. We expect the news to cover it. People to talk about it. We don’t expect brands to do so. In fact, more times than not, it seems callous and self-serving if brands do.

Brands need to realise that there are different rules for media organizations and journalists who cover news like Sandy Hook. And the media pays a terrible price for it. People hate them for it. It is one of the biggest criticisms of the news media.

Why would any sensible brand even want to step into that?

Brands need to remember that they are not people (despite what the Supreme Court says). People don’t expect them to mourn or to send condolences. Nor do they really want them to.  Brand communications are about marketing (and customer service). Their customers understand this and are willing to participate when it is fun, entertaining, informative, or leads to a coupon or a good deal.

People are not so understanding when it comes to murder, death or national crises. They don’t care what brands think about that. It’s not a place for brand discourse, which is why several brands got hammered for stepping into the conversation in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. Yet many brands are having a difficult time staying on the sidelines. They want to participate.

It’s a mistake to do so. The best course for brands during a national tragedy?

Respectful silence.

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