Even as America mourns and tries to make sense of Friday morning’s massacre in Aurora, Colorado, there are some lessons emerging on appropriate — and inappropriate — response to tragedy.

Context Drives Meaning

Context drives meaning.  Words, actions, or events that are perfectly appropriate one day may be wildly inappropriate, distasteful, offensive, or even inaccurate the next.  One key discipline for leaders and organizations is to continuously adapt to changing circumstances that may alter the context in which communication takes place.

The shooting that left 12 dead and 58 wounded in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater is such an event.

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Moviegoers were at the midnight premier of the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. The shooting took place at about 12:38 AM Mountain Daylight Time, or at about 2:38 AM on the East Coast.  Police were on the scene within minutes, and news media began pushing alerts via email and Twitter throughout the early morning hours.  People awoke to news reports of the shooting.  On the morning talk shows law enforcement experts expressed concern about copycat incidents, and police departments committed to providing uniformed presence at movie theaters showing the film.

But at 9:20 AM Eastern time, Twitter users noticed a curious tweet from @NRA_Rifleman, the  Twitter site of the American Rifleman, the official journal of the National Rifle Association.  It read: “Good morning, shooters.  Happy Friday!  Weekend plans?”

On any other day, or in another context, that tweet would not have been noticed beyond its immediate readership.  But in light of the events of the prior seven hours, the tweet seemed insensitive to the victims of the shooting, and to those affected by it.

Thinking it could be a hoax, reporters chased down the source.  Max Fisher, international editor at The Atlantic, tweeted: “This is a real tweet today from an official NRA account. Oblivious. RT @NRA_Rifleman: Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?”

As Mashable reported, some readers reacted quite negatively.  One tweeted “WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU????? PSYCHOS.”  There was some speculation that the tweet had been scheduled earlier, and was posted automatically.  One reader tweeted: “Betting (read: hoping) that NRA tweet was scheduled and auto-tweeted.”  Mashable eventually got an NRA spokesperson on the phone, who seemed unaware of the offending tweet.

The tweet remained up until just after 12:00 noon Eastern time.  The Atlantic’s Max Fisher updated his readers: “Whoever is tweeting at @NRA_Rifleman deleted their “good morning, shooters!” tweet, but no explanation or apology. via @melissakchan”

At about 1:30 the NRA issued a statement through its spokesman Andrew Arulanandam, saying: ““A single individual, unaware of events in Colorado, tweeted a comment that is being completely taken out of context.”  From the statement it seemed clear that the tweet had not been scheduled in advance.  But that simply raised more questions, about how someone tasked with tweeting could have been so unaware of the news of the day.  The Columbia Journalism Review tweeted: “This is what happens when you don’t read the news: RT @NRA_Rifleman: Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?”  Questions also lingered about how the tweet could have been allowed to stay up for three hours. By 4:30 the American Rifleman Twitter account seemed to have been taken down completely.

The Need to Adapt

One of the themes of The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively is that leaders and organizations need to adapt to changes in the communication environment.  Those who fail to adapt find themselves at risk of seeming out of touch, or worse.

The book cites an example from the 2008 presidential campaign.  Senator John McCain had used a line in his stump speech all year: “The fundamentals of the economy remain strong.”  But on September 15 everything changed.  The stock market crashed, the bond markets seized, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, and the most severe recession in our lifetimes began.  But Senator McCain didn’t adapt his rhetoric to the new realities.  He kept repeating “the fundamentals of the economy remain strong.”  That gave his opponent, Senator Barack Obama, an opening to paint Senator McCain as unaware, insensitive, and clueless.  But Senator McCain simply doubled down, persistently repeating and defending his claim.  It provided Senator Obama with a signficant advantage in the campaign.

To their credit, both candidates in the current presidential campaign adapted quickly.  They temporarily suspended campaign activity and pulled advertising out of Colorado.  President Obama said that “there are going to be other days for politics. This, I think, is a day for prayer and reflection.”  Governor Romney said, “We’ll all spend a little less time thinking about the worries of our day, and more time wondering about how to help those who are in need of compassion most.”

President Obama on Aurora Tragedy

Governor Romney on Aurora Tragedy

And it wasn’t just politicians who needed to adapt.  The Dark Knight Rises distributor, Warner Brothers, also had to adapt.  It cancelled Friday’s midnight premier in Paris, and put cast interviews on hold.

It also posted a statement on the film’s website, from the director, expressing “profound sorrow for the senseless tragedy that has befallen the entire Aurora community.”

Warner Brothers also adapted on another film it was promoting, Gangster Squad, due out in September.  The trailer for the film included a scene where gunmen fire automatic weapons into a movie theater audience from behind the screen.  Warner Brothers immediately pulled the trailer.

Context drives meaning.  And when circumstances change, leaders need to adapt.

The defining question for any leader or organization in the aftermath of a tragedy or other crisis is this:  What would reasonable people expect a responsible leader or organization to do when confronted with this?  President Obama, Governor Romney, and Warner Brothers seemed to meet those expectations.  The National Rifle Association, both in its initial tweet and in its reaction to criticism when the tweet became viral, seemed to have missed the mark.



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