In the midst of a national crisis—a senseless shooting in Newtown, CT, a natural disaster in Joplin, MO, or a terrorist attack in Boston—social media becomes a source for instant information.

And the recent events surrounding the Boston Marathon underscore just how complex managing these social channels has become. Misinformation spreads on Twitter, the front pages of major newspapers identify innocent men as suspects and witch-hunts begin in forums like Reddit.

As an industry, publishing is in a unique position: Even if we’re not all go-to breaking news sources, we are media outlets whose core mission is to inform. 

So, how should we handle these sensitive situations? Isn’t it our duty to dissipate information? Well, yes, but in order to maintain brand integrity, the info has to be factually correct. And in times of tragedy, early details are often foggy.

Here are my recommendations for what you should do the next time a crisis strikes. Take note: These are intended for lifestyle, trade and small b-to-b publications.  Outlets such as the NYT, WSJ, AP and Reuters are in a class of their own for breaking news.

Halt Social Media Posts

Until you can assess the severity of the situation and connect with your team (which could take time), pause content sharing so you avoid an awkwardly timed post. And that goes for retweets and shares from other sources. 

Communicate With Your Team

Start an email chain, gather in an office and get on the same page with your editors with everything you’re producing that day. Should the newsletter distribution be halted? Who’s calling tech to put a hold on the sweepstakes launching on the homepage?

Tip: Work with ad sales to include verbiage in advertiser contracts stating that any social support for brand promotions will be on tentative dates only. In the event you need to cancel or reschedule a tweet or Facebook promotion in the face of a tragedy, you won’t be legally bound to certain dates.

Be Cautious of What You RT and Share

Boston was a prime example of how things can go wrong in the race to be first. Inaccuracies were everywhere. Wired’s Matt Honan even called for Twitter to offer an “edit” button. So be judicious with your decisions: Remember that a RT is an endorsement of the content, and it’s your responsibility to make sure that what you are putting in your readers’ newsfeeds isn’t bogus. 

Have a Crisis Plan in Place

If you don’t have a basic protocol, make an outline now and ask yourself: Does at least one other person have access to the publishing tool to edit outgoing posts (or halt them altogether?) If the social media manager is unavailable at the time of a crisis, the keys to the kingdom should be accessible to a senior-level editor or publisher. Also worth keeping in mind: Do you need a POV on the subject? In most cases you’ll want to offer up very neutral information. If you’re compelled to acknowledge the event, a short and succinct post like Coca Cola or Ebay did for Boston will suffice. 

In The Aftermath, Consider a Reduced Posting Schedule

In the days that follow a tragic event, edit seemingly frivolous social copy. This is mostly applicable to lifestyle and consumer magazines. I’d suggest holding any “OMG, can you believe that actress got bangs?” tweets until the media climate has cooled. If you’re a b-to-b or trade pub, perhaps you could hold promotional posts or calls for conference sign-ups.  

Here are three posts and discussions I found helpful below:

Agree? Disagree? Tweet me your POV @StephaniePaige

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