Communicating With Your Community During Tragedies: Some Lessons Learned From Boston

I’ll never forget when I had to send my first sympathy card.

A family friend had passed away. I asked my father what note I should include in the card. He told me to keep it short and simple. He then said something that has stuck with me every since.

There is no such thing as the “right” thing to say when someone is grieving.

Thanks in part to email marketing, blogging, and social media, we are able to communicate – en mass – with our community faster then we ever have been before.

In many cases, this is a good thing.

During yesterday’s tragedy in Boston, I was able to quickly text, tweet, DM, email, and Facebook message my friends in the Boston area to find out if they were okay. Other social media updates were flying around; many of them disseminating extremely helpful information – like Google’s Person Finder. Some of the information was false – either not from reliable sources or just rumors getting spread.

And then there were some other things that happened.

People were posting on Facebook and Twitter comments like this:


There was this tweet from Chris Brogan:

I personally agree with Chris. But that’s not the point. What I want you to read are the responses to Chris’s tweet. Lots of reaction. Lots of emotion. Lots of misinterpretation of what Chris actually meant.

Chris actually recorded a special podcast this morning to go into more detail. He 100% nails it. Please take 6 minutes and 50 seconds out of your day to give it a listen.

Thanks to Chris for taking the time to articulate his point. In my opinion, it’s a good one … an important message for all to hear.

How I Communicated To My Community Yesterday

I posted a few updates to Facebook yesterday. I shared information on Twitter that I thought would be helpful.

I also sent an email out to my list. My goal of this email (below) was to take my father’s advice: Keep it short and simple. I wanted to offer my condolences to anyone who was affected by the tragedies in Boston.

As you can see in the email below, that was what I think I did.


I immediately received a few replies. Readers thanked me for taking the time to acknowledge the tragedy.

Then, I got this email from one subscriber.

Do you have any idea how this email looks? You say your thoughts are with everyone and then there is a photo of you grinning. I’m sure you mean well, but it doesn’t come across that way.

I was floored. I felt awful.

I replied immediately letting them know that was not my intent, telling them it was an oversight. The fact that my intentions of sending a heartfelt message were “ruined” by my standard, default picture – the one I use everywhere online – really really bothered me.

So I did what I thought was best. I send an “apology” email out to my entire list. Here is what the text of the email looked like:

After sending out my last email about the tragedy in Boston, one of my subscribers replied with the following message:

“Do you have any idea how this email looks? You say your thoughts are with everyone and then there is a photo of you grinning. I’m sure you mean well, but it doesn’t come across that way.”

This person followed up with another email letting me know that there is some discussion about it in a few private Facebook Groups.

I want to offer an apology.

For those of you who know me, you know that the intent of my email was not in any way to offend. I truly wanted to offer my condolences and let you all know I was thinking about those affected by the events that took place in Boston today.

It was an oversight on my part to leave in the picture of me smiling. That’s my default picture. It’s in every single one of my emails. Either way, in hindsight, I should have sent this email without the picture.

Please accept my apology if you were offended in any way.

If you are in one of those private Facebook groups who is discussing this now, please feel free to share this email with everyone.

Thanks to the person who made me aware of this. I do appreciate the feedback. Always.

My thoughts are with everyone impacted by this tragedy.


The response to THAT email was overwhelming to say the least. I’ll spare the details, but suffice to say, the far far far majority of my community was not offended by my original email.

What really bothered me more than anything however, was that my focus and energy was shifted from the victims of Boston. That is what really mattered yesterday and going forward. A tragedy occurred. Something awful happened.

But then I really thought about it. What lessons can be learned from an “oopsie” like this? Here’s what I came up with:

1. Speed is important, but accuracy is critical. You see this all the time with many of the major media outlets now. In a rush to be the first to report information, they sometimes get it wrong. I’m not sure the data on this, but my feeling is they are “getting it wrong” more often these days compared to the past. While I didn’t share any false information, I certainly could have linked to an unverified source.

2. Double check everything you do – always. As I mentioned in my follow up email, in hindsight, I should have sent that email without my picture. I regret that someone was offended. Looking back, I should have taken a few more minutes to “proof” that entire email. I didn’t and it caused someone to get upset at me.

3. You can’t please everyone. As mentioned above, lots of folks replied to my second email indicating they were not offended by my original email. While that confirmed to me that my picture did not negatively impact most people, it still didn’t take away from the fact that one person was bothered.

4. When you put yourself out there, expect to get a response – good or bad. I know this. I’ve been blogging, tweeting, speaking and participating in the social web long enough to know that when you create content, people react. Some will love it. Some will hate it. Many wil not even notice it.

5. Tragedies bring out the best (and worst) in people.

My heart goes out to all of those impacted by the events that occurred in Boston yesterday.

DJ Waldow
Waldow Social

Paul Nash
Paul Nash

There's no rule book here. Personally, I wouldn't have sent a blast e-mail at that time -- with or without auto-generated photo -- as it just didn't seem to add anything when we were hyper-information gathering and trying to sort fact from fiction. I'm in Boston, too. The e-mails (and texts, LinkedIn's, etc) that I'll remember are the ones from friends, clients, colleagues, prospects, etc who took a minute to personally reach out to see if I was ok. Thanks for sharing your experience, DJ.


Well said, DJ...I'm not sure why some people respond so negatively to what most realize are genuine sentiments.  To paraphrase something I posted  earlier today, we all react to tragedy differently and if we're not overtly trying to hurt someone, why not cut each other a break.   


I agreed with you and Chris. I was incredulous watching the indignant comments about stuff as asinine as auto-tweets, when the focus should have been on the tragedy itself and the people affected. I also got your email and saw absolutely nothing wrong with it, just your heartfelt thoughts and nothing "stupid and overlooked" with your smiling photo. You shouldn't have had to defend yourself. Neither should Chris, who allowed himself to get into a nasty debate on Twitter before he wisely disengaged.


Yep, there are teachable moments everywhere. Opening ourselves up to them and sharing the lessons makes us all better. Period. Excellent post. 



I totally with your points above. However, I think #4 is especially significant. I believe that it's vital that we "put ourselves out there" and "show up" for whatever is happening, especially something a tragic as what happened yesterday.

To put ourselves out there in that capacity is to be humble and vulnerable, and to be humble and vulnerable is to be human. Those type of things transcend all things and should bring people together.

Watching from where I was I think you handled the situation accordingly. You were human.

Just my two cents....


djwaldow moderator

@Paul Nash Appreciate that feedback, Paul. To be clear, my intent was not to "add anything." It was simply to offer my condolences to those impacted in any way. I also sent texts and DMs and tweets and IMs to make sure my family and friends were okay.

To be honest, if I had known who on my list was in the Boston area on Monday, I would have emailed each and every person individually.

djwaldow moderator

@brandonuttley Thanks for your support Brandon. Agree that we should be focused on the tragedy ... not this stuff.

djwaldow moderator

@KrisSpurley Appreciate that. As you know, I'm all about introspection ... and learning ... and teaching. Thanks for your comment!

djwaldow moderator

@DewaneMutunga Thanks Dewane. Agree that #4 is very very important. I should know that already, but these kinds of things serve as a good reminder.

And it's always good to be human, right?

Paul Nash
Paul Nash

@djwaldow @Paul Nash DJ, of course and I hear you. People will have different opinions, but no one can fault the intent. And thanks for putting this out there for us to discuss. No playbook here. :-)