"I think it depends on the company's relationship to the people, or community or city involved in the crisis," said Brad Shimmin, an analyst with Current Analysis. "Companies are like people. They can stand for something and have an opinion. They can be a driver for change. Crises like the ones we've seen the past year are good examples of how companies can behave like people and help out."
He added that companies can use Facebook or Twitter to play an active role during a crisis, such as the marathon bombings, a deadly hurricane, or the explosion that killed multiple people in West Texas. Companies can point followers to useful information, such as where to go to make a donation to the Red Cross, for instance.
"Companies can have a lot of pull and broad reach," said Shimmin. "There's no reason why they should sit idly by."
However, it would be better for a company to go silent on social networks during a crisis than to continue to tweet or post about a new ad campaign or, even worse, say something inappropriate.
One of the basic tenets of marketing is that you don't want to be talking when no one is listening or when you're talking is going to upset your audience," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "This means you don't roll out a big new marketing campaign during a time when your market is focused exclusively on something else that's more important.
"One of the advantages of social media marketing is that it can be changed or postponed very quickly and at little cost," he added.
Going silent on social media is better than continuing to spew out a previously scheduled sales promotion. Companies that do that risk looking insensitive and uncaring.
Hinojosa also said companies should never try to be funny during a time of crisis. Sometimes it's tempting to want to break the mood with something funny, but it nearly always comes off as insensitive.
Analysts also stressed the importance of not appearing to use a crisis to garner publicity. If there's no reason for a company to be making a comment -- if the crisis is not affecting your community or your customers, for example -- then think about not commenting. Also don't make a statement of support and then link to a product announcement or a sales pitch.
Also, make sure it doesn't appear that your company is trying to hijack a media trend or trying to draw attention to itself based on someone else's bad news.