At least one brand will always screw it up on holidays that are memorials for a tragedy. On September 11, 2013, cell phone company AT&T attempted to “honor” the victims of the terrorist attack by posting a picture of a smart phone with an image of the “Tribute of Light” National September 11 Memorial. Following the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing in April, Epicurious, a website that publishes recipes, tweeted “In honor of Boston and New England, may we suggest: whole grain cranberry scones!” Not a holiday, but still an example of a brand attempting to exploit a national tragedy in order to push a product.

This week on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day marking the birth of a man who was assassinated for his work leading the Civil Rights Movement, ZzzQuil, a sleep aid, tweeted “Today is the day for dreaming. Happy MLK Day.”

These tweets are clearly inappropriate. Oftentimes, these brands mean well. They are attempting to acknowledge a federal holiday, but miss the mark.

So how can your brand acknowledge a significant event or tragedy on social media without screwing it up? Try these steps:

  1. DO NOT try to sell your product. Any connection you draw between your product and the tragedy will be exploitation and seen as an insensitive move. It might be tempting to take advantage of current events, but just DON’T.
  2. DO NOT try to draw a connection between your company, your brand, your slogan, etc. and the tragedy. Doing so is still trying to sell your product, but in a roundabout way. It’s still exploitative and insensitive. If you would like to get credit for a picture created honoring the day, a small watermark or logo is okay.
  3. DO sincerely acknowledge the event. In the case of MLK Day, a quote, picture, or shared article expressing admiration for his accomplishments is appropriate. Post what you might post on your own personal account.
  4. DO act human. An expression of sadness or solidarity will be appreciated by your audience, as well as any victims of the tragedy.
  5. DO NOT use automated messages. Even if it takes more work, have a real person send out tweets and respond to customer messages.
  6. DO something significant. Create an image that pays homage to Martin Luther King Jr. Donate a portion of profits that day to victims of the tragedy. Put the company flag at half-mast.
  7. DO NOT ignore the tragic event. In times of great sadness, we as humans look for comfort outside of ourselves. We look for solidarity. Even a little message from a business can bring a tiny ray of light back into the lives of many. If you want to send the message that you care about your consumer base, care about them as humans with a sincere acknowledgement of the event.

Above all, remember that your audience is human. They will not react as a business, but as people with real emotions.

What did your business do for Martin Luther King Jr. Day? We’d love to hear it in the comments below!


Soper, Taylor. “Marketing mess-up: People furious with AT&T’s ‘tacky’ attempt to honor 9/11 victims.” (20 Dec. 2014).

Weissman, Saya. “The 5 Worst Brand Twitter Screwups of 2013.” (20 Jan. 2014).

Wasserman, Todd. “ZzzQuil Flunks MLK Day on Twitter.” (20 Jan. 2014).

Buyer, Lisa. “Social Media Strategy in Times of Tragedy.” (20 Jan. 2014).