It is easy to talk about the transformational impact of social media on the way we live. But I think we only begin to appreciate the role it has had, and will have, in our lives when life-changing events occur.

A couple of weeks ago, Hurricane Sandy tore through the east coast of the US and Caribbean causing devastation across large areas. Throughout that week there were 12 million tweets about Sandy. Alongside general conversations about the storm and its impact, there have been shining examples of social media used by public organizations, officials, and banks, as well as one or two bad misjudgments.

It is nothing new to see public organisations and departments using social networks to relay information in times of crisis, but the scale and level of adoption by different departments and officials for Sandy has been particularly striking.

Furthermore, I was impressed to see how many banks, that have traditionally been slow in using social media effectively, actually stepped up to help get people through the crisis. Wells Fargo, Citi Bank and many others aided customers by identifying which branches were open, highlighting that certain bank fees were waived, and providing general advice for hurricane safety.
This approach was in stark contrast to two brands that have traditionally had well regarded social media pages and should have known better: Gap and American Apparel. Both companies managed to land themselves in a social media storm by trying to newsjack Sandy.
American Apparel thought it would be a good idea to email customers living in affected states offering them 20 percent off because they were likely to have no clothes left. Just enter “SANDYSALE” at the checkout!

In a similar act of insensitivity, Gap opted to ‘check-in’ on FourSquare telling everyone “All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe! We’ll be doing lots of shopping today. How about you?”. As the backlash came in both companies attempted to backpedal, but the damage had already been done.
Brands can get real cut-through using social media when they demonstrate that they understand their audience and engage with them in a way that adds value. Many brands could learn from the proactive and engaging way the Mayor of Newark, Cory Brooker, made use of Twitter. When told about a lack of power by a resident on Twitter, he invited her round to his house to charge her phone, have some food and watch DVDs. In doing this he demonstrated the importance of listening, engaging and adding value.
In social media the emphasis is on social. In times where compassion is needed it is important that businesses remember this, and ensure that social behavior – empathy and compassion – are placed front and centre.

Chris Jackson is head of digital at Cicero Group