Strength in numbers. When it comes to grief, experts agree that getting support of other people is paramount. A key to understanding the grieving process is that people express it differently at different times. The Kubler-Ross stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. A community of grieving people around a single person or event can be in any stage at a given time.
So how can social media help a grieving community? When a former student of mine lost a baby shortly after birth, I was surprised to see her go on Facebook almost immediately and express her grief. I am just old enough to feel uncomfortable by public expressions of grief, especially on a channel where everyone reading isn't at the same level of friendship. But I learned a valuable lesson watching her posts over the next few months. Expressing grief via social media garners support from those that love you, and fosters empathy in those who are watching.
Recently I gave a presentation at the U.S. Sailing national conference in Long Beach on crisis communications, particularly social media's role. One of the clubs had a fatal accident at the junior level the previous year. Two of the leaders involved in the tragedy were on the panel. They mentioned that, on the advice of their lawyer, they asked the parents of the victim to take down their child's Facebook page following the event. Their lawyer was worried about discoverable communication. When the discussion turned to me, I offered that the lawyer's advice was predictable, but wrong. The club had nothing to hide--they had maintained a textbook handling of the accident and everyone involved acted responsibly, courageously, and on task. The victim's friends and family began using that Facebook page to offer messages of sympathy and support. It was a central place for all of them, some separated by miles, to virtually hug one another and to travel through the five stages of grief together. Thankfully, the parents did not comply with the request.
When Joe Paterno, former head football coach at Penn State passed away Sunday, the Penn State football Facebook page became a central place of grief. And yes, there were some mean-spirited people who chose to express their outrage at some of the events that led to Paterno's recent firing. But, for the most part the comments were thoughtful expressions of sorrow. At approximately 8:00 a.m., this was posted on the Penn State football page:
This post had 15,649 likes and 2,555 comments at 9:48 a.m. By 10:00 a.m. there were 16,074 likes and 2,668 comments. Twenty minutes later there were 17,919 likes and 2,795 comments. By 11:00, the likes had hit 20,000 and the comments were close to 3,000. This morning, there were over 28,000 likes and over 4,000 comments. Granted, there were some duplicate users, but those numbers are pretty phenomenal for one hour on Facebook. Several Twitter hashtags were blowing up as well with expressions of sorrow--again a few angry posters as well.
Whether we like it or not, social media has become a public stage for human emotion. Facebook, Twitter, and other channels offer a valuable medium for people looking to express sorrow, grief, anger, and every emotion in between. And the channel fosters an environment of community that allows people to feel like they are all together in one big room. Scary and fantastic all at the same time.
Smart organizations will think seriously about offering a center of solace for their communities when tragedy strikes. Reputations can be bolstered by public empathy. But tread lightly. Promotion, spin, and organizational misconduct do not mix well with grieving people.