When Dunkin' Donuts executives were deciding how to respond on Twitter and Facebook to the Boston Marathon bombings, they acted like what they are - members of a grieving Boston community.
As the community pulled together to care for the wounded and support each other, and local, state and federal agencies began a massive manhunt for the bombers, local and national companies had to figure out how to respond on social media.
For instance, executives had to decide whether their company should tweet about the incident, and whether new marketing campaigns should be postponed.
The Dunkin' Donuts restaurant chain based in nearby Canton, Mass. faced these questions on the day of the bombings, as well as during the following week.
The company's social media effort, fraught with potential social pitfalls and blunders, worked so well that industry analysts are pointing to it as an example of what companies should do after such a tragic event.
"As a company with proud Boston roots, our hearts are with those who were affected by the tragic events at the Boston Marathon," said Jessica Gioglio, the social media manager for Dunkin' Brands, in an email to Computerworld. "We felt that it was important to express this sentiment to our social media community."
Dunkin' Donuts, with restaurants on street corners all over New England and beyond, was already handing out samples of its wares at the Prudential Center Plaza during the marathon, and had employees both running and cheering on the racers.
Just after the bombings at the finish line on April 15, Dunkin' Donuts tweeted, "Our thoughts are w/ the victims & everyone affected by the explosions at the Boston Marathon. We grieve with all of Boston & the country."
Then the company went silent on both Facebook and Twitter for three days.
After that, the coffee chain tweeted, "We're proud to announce a $100,000 donation to the One Fund Boston to help those impacted during this difficult time." The tweet linked to a press release announcing that Dunkin' Donuts shops throughout New England were collecting One Fund Boston donations from customers.
The company did not resume its normal Facebook and Twitter marketing campaigns until Sunday, April 21 - six days after the bombings.
Alex Hinojosa, vice president of media operations for EMSI Public Relations, said that companies that use social networks for marketing purposes are in a precarious situation during a crisis. The companies need to make sure everything they tweet or post is well thought out, he said.
To do that, Hinojosa and other experts recommend that companies create a social media crisis management plan to guide them once a crisis comes.
And a crisis management plan is exactly what Dunkin' Donuts relied on.
"Our policies are detailed and situation-focused, but the key theme is that you must have a cross-functional task force of subject matter experts," said Gioglio. "Have it outlined in your plan who needs to be involved and approve the appropriate course of action during a sensitive situation."
She added that the company's crisis management team includes workers from different departments. During a major crisis, an even wider group is gathered to offer counsel.
"It's important to hear different opinions and determine if and what type of response is appropriate," said Gioglio. "This is important because all external-facing communications should be consistent, yet personalized for the channels they're going out on."
She noted that no employees or restaurants were physically harmed by the bombings.
"We put a considerable amount of thought into our Facebook post and tweet, and are proud that it came from the heart, as we were experiencing these tragic events with the Boston community," said Gioglio. "We felt that it was important to keep our post simple and heartfelt out of respect for our community."
She also pointed out that immediately after the bombings, the company immediately stopped all planned social media communications.
With people focused on sharing stories and their support for those impacted by the bombings, Dunkin' wanted to put all national campaigns on hold and show their respect with social media silence.
Gioglio said there's nothing she wishes they had done differently.
"When posting, we expected to see a range of responses to our posts," she said.
"We reviewed all of the responses carefully and took it as a learning opportunity to see how our consumers wanted our brand to act and offer support in these situations. Overall, we believe the recommendations and responses from our social media community were in line with the actions we took."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is [email protected].
Read more about social media in Computerworld's Social Media Topic Center.