Social Media Wins and Fails: Eye of the Storm

Hurricane Sandy's Course

(source: CBS News)

During every moment, no matter how trying, there is a lesson — especially in times of crisis. And without minimizing the tragedy we are still able to look at social media use during the storm and draw important lessons for social media in business.

CEM’s own writer Patrick put together a fantastic post recently on how businesses and civilians alike relied on Twitter during the storm. As Patrick notes, people didn’t just use Twitter, they used a broad range of social media, and that’s where we find even more usable lessons.


Newsjacking, False Information, and Using Tragedy for Gain

We’ve all seen before that while tragedy can bring out the best in us, our dark sides are just as readily apparent. Marisol Bello at USA Today put together a post about the dark side of social media during the storm.

In it she covers several topics, the first of which is the massive sharing during the storm of images that posters claimed to be from various spots during Hurricane Sandy, when they weren’t true at all. Mashable tackled this very early on in a post they called “7 Fake Hurricane Sandy Photos You’re Sharing on Social Media”.

From a photo of soldiers in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to a picture stolen from a popular disaster movie, to various photoshopped photos combining non-sandy images with random storm photos — people spent much of the day passing around images that were either blatant fabrications or legitimate photos that weren’t of Sandy at all. In fact, as I was stuck on the East Coast because of the storm, I spent a good couple hours practicing my troll skills as I debunked photo after photo on my own timeline.

After that Bello goes on to talk about one specific Twitter feed that was the source of much misinformation. He tweeted several times with easily-verifiable yet somehow deemed-credible information about the NYSE trading floor being flooded with water, power being shut off to the entirety of NYC, and the subway would be closed for the remainder of the week. While people quickly jumped on these tweets to decry them as false, they had already been shared and the damage was done.

Outside of Bello’s article we have two more flagrant examples of companies exercising the poorest of judgment. Hubspot, a company I’ve written about before on, showed their dark side when posting a blog about several different ways a marketing company can newsjack the tragedy for their gain. They have since removed the post and in its place used the spot to open up a conversation about the moral nature of newsjacking a tragedy in general. Their original post received a massive negative backlash, and Hubspot learned their lesson.

Lastly, clothing retailer American Apparel not only showed their dark side in using poor judgment, but levied utter disrespect at the victims of the hurricane out of what was ostensibly pure marketing opportunism. During the height of the storm American Apparel sent out an email blast offering 20% off to all users in storm-affected areas in case they were “bored during the storm”. This move was widely panned and received a bevy of negative criticism from across the web. I’ve never been an American Apparel shopper, but they can be assured at least one potential consumer will always think twice when presented with the opportunity of purchasing from their brand.

Fail Rating: 5/5 Fail Whales

Key Learnings: While these are all specific to the Hurricane Sandy tragedy, we have several important lessons. First: Always verify what you’re sharing. It’s easy to see a funny one-liner, a moving photo or seemingly-factual information and repost it. But it’s always, always, always necessary to make sure that what you’re posting is both factual and accurate. You could damage your brand if you don’t take proper precautions. Second: Make sure that while you’re taking risks in your social media usage (with risk comes reward), you’re considering impacts to your brand. Lastly, never ever use a tragedy for your advantage. It’s fine to find a benefit in your work, but being transparent and benevolent without acting in a selfish manner will always show better long-term rewards.


Social Sharing For Good

Benevolence is one of those terms we understand in a general sense but is always tremendously surprising and impactful when used in a practical manner. During Hurricane Sandy millions of people up and down the East Coast (and across the country) used social media as a lifeline. They connected with loved ones, learned of dangerous areas, and reported dangerous situations to call authorities to their aid.

At, Alex Kaufman had a post about the use of Twitter to connect with loved ones, and specifically notes how posts about trying to find friends and family, and tweets alerting users and first-responders to dangerous situations and areas were retweeted by many. As a business your social media usage may be geared around generating revenue and creating happy, loyal consumers — but chances are in that effort you’ve cultivated a large audience. Just like a “civilian” Twitter user, you can use your position to retweet a message to either help spread warning or try to create connections. adds to the examples of Twitter being used as a positive force during Hurricane Sandy but also explains that weather site AccuWeather set up a Google+ Hangout (a group video-chatting service offered by the company) in order to let users gather and ask questions about the storm. On top of that, the American Red Cross released a smartphone app that kept users up-to-date on the latest storm info, as well as provided them with check-lists of items that should be stored in the house during the emergency. An app like that no doubt gets shared socially, and people can download it by the thousands.

My alma mater,Susquehanna University, is situated in Central Pennsylvania and draws many students from up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Given its proximity to New York and New Jersey, many students take advantage of what SU has to offer, and welcome the relatively small distance from home. As such, many in the current student body and alumni community alike have become victims of the storm.

In an effort to reach out to its community with love and support, but more importantly as a way to keep its community informed, SU President Jay Lemons posted a message on the Susquehanna website that was also emailed out to all alumni. Lemons expressed his sympathies and invited members of the SU community to reach out to the university on Twitter and Facebook in order to let the school know both how they were doing, and to connect with others whether affected by the storm directly or not.

Social media at its core is about sharing and connecting. These examples show organizations of many sizes, as well as individual users, using social media to help connect victims with aid, create support out of community, and give people a place to make their voice heard so they know people care. This is social sharing for good, purely because it is such.

(My normal “Win” rating scale of “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner” seems uncouth here, so instead this earns a rating of 5/5 Hugs. Kitschy, but hey, everyone deserves a hug in times of need.)


Key Learnings: There are two key takeaways here. First: When using social for business don’t be afraid to use it for pure good, even if there’s no direct or immediate benefit to you. Doing things because they’re the right thing is always going to be beneficial for you in the long run. It’s nice to be reminded that business and money aren’t the only things in the world, which leads us into our second takeaway. Second: As I said before, you’ve likely worked hard to cultivate a large social community for your business. In your position of power, in that regard, you have a tremendous opportunity to use that network to help in times of tragedy. You might not be able to be on the ground, passing out supplies or donating money, blood or food — but you can connect your community with organizations so that they can help. You can work to connect users to loved ones (you never know who will see a shared message.) You can work to create community, pass updates, and help out those in need — and you should, because it’s the right thing to do.



What are some stories you have of using social for business for good? How often do you expect a direct return on your social investments? Do you have any stories from Hurricane Sandy? Use the comment section below to continue the conversation about using social for business in times of tragedy.


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Jason is a 30-something that lives in Denver, CO. He has very red hair, loves the outdoors, and all things homebrew. He has a social media addiction, and can be found at

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