Brand Strategy Social Media The Queen

What the death of The Queen has taught us about tragedy-social

By David Levin, co-founder

September 12, 2022 | 14 min read

To say something or to stay silent? The death of The Queen posed a unique dilemma for brands’ social media managers, all too aware there’s a fine line between respect and ridicule. That Lot’s David Levin tells us what we can learn from the mass marketing mourning we’ve seen in recent days.


Legoland was one of many brands paying their own, unique, tribute to the late Queen

If you work in social media, most days are high-speed, slightly underserviced rollercoasters of reactive mayhem that leave you gasping for air (and gin) by lunchtime.

When something momentous happens in the real world that your client could potentially post about, we become bodyguards, armed with community management guidelines and crisis escalation WhatsApp groups, just trying to navigate brands to the safety of 6pm without being cancelled.

In the painful pantheon of UK moments that have cranked up the pressure in the always-on-social department, nothing compares to last week’s passing of HM Queen Elizabeth II. In the past few days, we’ve seen brands throwing their social playbook out the window, we’ve seen some of the most staggering own-goals in the history of the internet and unexpectedly touching tributes from the likes of Shrek, sex shops and the British Kebab Awards. From these days of mournful mania, here are some things I’ve learnt about the art of tragedy-social.

Saying nothing at all can be difficult (even for Ronan Keating)

Within hours of The Queen passing, many social commentators were urging brands to stay quiet. No doubt some brands out there had FOMMO (Fear Of Missed Marketing Opportunities), but it was wrong to lob that criticism at every single one of them. Many of the clients I’ve spoken to felt compelled to pay their respects. The death of a monarch is a huge national moment that, for some brands, felt uncomfortable to steer clear of. Many wanted to show followers, and internal employees, that they’re grieving with them.

It’s easy for any of us to mock the brands getting it wrong (Thomas Cook supposedly tweeting *checks notes* “Safe travels, ma’am” comes to mind) and demand all other brands wind their neck in, but it’s not always so easy to convince senior stakeholders (particularly grieving ones) to hold back their condolences, even if silence seems a safer social strategy.

If you do choose to pay your respects as a brand, it’s essential to tread carefully. “Pick your channels and audience wisely,” says Prefer-To-Remain-Anonymous at Awesome Travel Brand. “For the Queen, we kept everything to LinkedIn because employees want to see it etc, but kept it off our Instagram/Twitter as it’s just not our place.” I asked them if any posts by other brands stood out. “The Ann Summers one was a cracker,” they said. “Nothing says RIP like dildos.”

People don’t like grieving pizzas

Many of the brand tributes that have been roasted most savagely over the past few days have been ones that came across as jarring – for example, this now-famous post by Domino’s. As a piece of content, it was far from terrible on its own merits, but people seemed to find it weird that a normally banterful pizza shop was paying a heartfelt tribute to The Queen. James Whatley from Diva Agency wasn’t among the haters though.

“It was fascinating to me to see Domino’s UK being held up as some kind of social media pariah for its condolences tweet,” he says. “Why shouldn’t Domino’s share its condolences to the Royal Family? You can’t stake a cultural claim over British banter and ignore the hugest cultural moment in centuries. It was one of the first to go live (within an hour) and the whole thing that followed after had a whiff of marketing snobbery and advertising classism.”

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It’s worth remembering that behind all social accounts are human beings and that social media at its core is about human connection. There’s a human need to share in an emotional moment, whether you’re the social media manager for a pizza shop, the community manager for Crazy Frog or, ignoring the advice of your own sweet lyrics, you are Ronan Keating.

Mourning has broken (the internet)

Until last week, I hadn’t seen much of The British Kebab Awards, Shrek’s Adventure or Ann Summers on social media. But having felt compelled to pay their tributes to The Queen, all three found themselves shrouded in engagement. I think it’s fair to say a healthy serving of their viral fame was of the ironic shade-throwing variety, but still. Whether it was worth the risk is open to debate (I imagine it has been a testing few days for the Ann Summers marketing team), but tributes of the unexpected clearly have an ability to capture attention. What I like about some of these unexpected tributes is that they’re human. Saying, ’We at Adult Nappies are devastated by the loss of The Queen’ isn’t about the brand, it’s about the people behind Adult Nappies and about their community. Yes, some may argue that Adult Nappies don’t have an obvious right to join the conversation, but perhaps we’ve become too cynical.

A word of warning though: always pay close attention to what appears next to your tributes. (Shoutout to Summer Ray here for an exquisite use of the reveal format).

If it feels like an ad, that will be bad

An absolute no-no for a brand entering a tragedy conversation is being self-serving. If your tribute comes across like a bad-taste advert for your brand, it’s likely to be ripped to pieces before you can say ’why are we trending?’ A mistake highlighted and satirised beautifully by Sarah Khan-Varda here.

Reactive social requires rock-solid processes

For those of us who work in social, the last few days have highlighted the vital importance of smart reactive process. Processes both as an agency to ensure we can deliver reactive content/reactive thinking in a way that’s quick and meaningful, but also processes between agency and client that allow for multiple stakeholders, high emotions and fear of being chewed up like Domino’s. It also helps if you have reactive-social specialists.

Here’s one of ours, Dan ‘Have I Got News for You’ Bowman. “When it comes to reactive social the first two things brands should consider are: ‘Do we have the authority to join this conversation?’ and ‘is there more to lose than there is to gain?’” says Dan. “And if you’re not 100% sure on either count, then it’s usually safer to leave.

The major difference with the events of last week, however, is that it’s such a huge global story that it affects everybody, so it’s inevitable that most brands are trying to put something out. It therefore comes down to taste. Simple things like changing logos or sombre messages of condolence on a black background? Great. Following up your sombre message with an ad for a vibrator? Not so much.”

It’s worth noting that, like a lot of companies, we’d done some planning for the passing of HRH before last week, a lot of which helped us navigate the high-pressure developments on Thursday. Not quite on the BBC’s level with their ironed black suits in their lockers, but useful nonetheless.

Timing is important

With reactive, timing is everything. In some cases, speed can be as important as the post itself. But when it comes to commenting on a tragedy, it’s all about the substance. On Thursday, we saw a number of brands react quickly, which is normally a good thing, but it seemed to backfire for some of them because their presence at that precise moment felt inappropriate and left some clambering for the delete button.

Timing also applies to those posting about other matters. Beware the ruthless tyranny of scheduled posts! If that’s how you manage your output and a breaking tragedy is unfolding in the news, quickly make sure you sense-check everything you’ve got lined up to go out that day; something Canada’s Drag Race may now wish they’d done, likewise a certain lager brand who unknowingly unleashed a bit of beer banter a few minutes after the announcement of The Queen’s death. Which of course went down like a KFC bargain bucket at a vegan picnic.

It’s good to do an actual thing

Some of the better received brand tributes have been ones where they not only shared condolences, but pledged to take action. A good example of that was 10 Ways donating money to Her Majesty’s favourite charities. Maybe the British Kebab Awards should’ve given away some free koftas?

Maybe not.

TikTok will always be TikTok

Even in periods of mourning, there will always be opportunities to post about classic Craig David songs. Which is something to be thankful for.

And finally…

My last piece of advice for those thinking of posting about a tragedy is to look at what Wayne Lineker is doing – and then do the exact opposite. Wayne’s tribute to HRH was about as tasteful as Babestation on mushrooms.

Stay classy.

David Levin is co-founder of That Lot, social agency for the likes of Prime Video, Spotify and Have I Got News for You

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