This topic is a difficult one, and especially this close to the bombing at the Boston Marathon, it’s probably coming a little too soon. But I’m going to make an honest effort to provide some helpful advice, and do it in a respectful manner, and I’m just going to have to ask for grace from any of you that I might offend. I’m also going to use Twitter as my main example here, but this can also apply to other social networking sites.

Like many, I was at work when the bombings happened, but I didn’t know it until later. I was in a meeting following up from our launch event at the Social Media Marketing World (SMMW) conference.

After that, I wrote some emails following up on contacts made at the show. It wasn’t until after that was done that I looked at Twitter and realized what was happening. I can’t get over how terrible my own timing was on those emails. Did I appear insensitive, or just out-of-the-loop?

What struck me was that mixed in with the messages of support, prayer, and offers of help on Twitter were messages from people and brands still firing off into the ether, unaware that there was something newsworthy happening.

This seemed even worse than my ill-timed emails. It was, frankly, a little disappointing to see people and brands still going about business as usual during a tragedy. In all fairness, we are a global community, and there is tragedy happening around the world every day. Chris Brogan asked about this:

It’s a reasonable question to ask. There’s a tastefulness line at play here, and this is exactly why I think that smart social marketers and brands will always make sure that there is a feeling, caring person in charge of your social media strategy.

Automation is wonderful when used appropriately, but a computer can’t make the kind of judgment call a person would need to make on a regular basis. I’d say if you stay customer-focused, and empathic about where your customers are, that will greatly inform any decisions like this.

I mentioned when writing about content marketing agility and the Superbowl Blackout how social media teams need to be aware of when major events are scheduled so they can be ready to react.

What I’m going to suggest now is that you also need to know when major events are happening so that you can be ready to NOT react. Every time a tragedy happens, there’s a cautionary tale of a brand that overstepped and looked foolish in how it responded.

My suggestion to anyone with this responsibility is to err on the side of suspending any automatic activity, and potentially all activity. Inherent in social media is a “social contract” between its users. When I create a Twitter profile and start following people, I do so believing that another person is on the other end, reading and potential responding to what I might choose to post.

When we interact with brands, we know that there may not be a real person at the other end, but we can suspend our disbelief a little.

When you schedule tweets to be sent automatically, we can no longer suspend our disbelief. Even the most well-crafted auto-tweet is obvious, and no more so than when major news is happening and your tweet (written hours or days earlier) is oblivious to that fact.

Plus, do you know if all of your scheduled tweets are free of any wording or images that could be offensive in light of the news that’s happening? Brands could have dozens of messages queued up, and scanning through these can be tough. It’s easier and more efficient to just suspend them altogether.

Assuming you’re not auto-tweeting and there’s a real person in charge of tweets being sent, you might be tempted to react to the news or offer a message of support from your company. I would argue that this is just as, if not more dangerous, than the auto-tweets.

Why? Because this can be seen as totally self-serving at best, or an attempt to capitalize on spikes in traffic at the worst. Someone else’s tragedy is not your chance to self-promote or a PR opportunity.

Your best course of action may be to “go dark” for a respectful amount of time. For how long? Again, this is where having an empathic person in charge of your social media will work best. That person will have a gut instinct for when it’s time to resume posting. If you need a guideline, I would say that the next day would be reasonable. If the tragedy happened in the evening, 24 hours later would be respectful.

If there were an exception, it would be for companies based where the tragedy is happening, or maybe with clients in the area. In this case, I would share and retweet messages from local authorities and news outlets on places where people can get help and offer assistance.

Do NOT use “RT” and quote someone else’s words. Use the standard share or retweet function in the software. Why? Because then the message is coming from those authorities direct to your followers and not from you. (I have a whole different issue with quoting other people’s words on Twitter, but that’s for another time.)

Act as a conduit for the information; do not take credit for it. I would also avoid details about the tragedy, particularly since the news as it happens is frequently rife with misinformation and partial facts. Stick to offering information about how people can help and get help, and you’ll be seen as a brand that cares. One key takeaway from the SMMW conference was that the more you post information to be helpful to others, without any other agenda, the more well-regarded your social presence will be to potential customers later.

In summary, whether you manage your own personal brand, or a corporate social network account, you need to be following current events constantly so that you know when breaking news is happening, particularly tragic news.

Keep people in the loop to make decisions based on these events. Your response should be simple: suspend communicating, until the next day at a minimum. Disable any automatic tweets that are scheduled, and hold off making any new ones. Resist the urge to make “our thoughts are with” kinds of messages, so that it doesn’t appear self-serving. Instead, re-tweet messages that offer people useful information on where they can find help, or offer help to others, because that shows you care.

Of course, my advice above reflects my own biases on how I view social media as a marketing channel, and the ways I prefer to use it. Has your company used social media to respond during tragic events? Let me know in the comments below.

Rob Stevens is Customer Marketing Producer for PaperShare, a real-time publishing engine that turns content into customers. “SuperRob” works with his clients to help them execute their content marketing strategy on social networks and their own websites.