- Katie Patterson is CEO and Founder of Happy Medium.
Social media management is all about being alert. The immediacy of Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the channels allows for brands to weigh in on world events in real time, some that are planned, as when a brand tweets something they’ve prepared for the Oscars, and others that are unexpected, as when the lights go off at the Super Bowl and your brand is totally prepared. The conversations happening online happen quick and the brands that effectively join that conversation are the ones that are ready, thoughtful and fast.
That applies to PR crises as well. Brands that find that customers are talking negatively about them online need to act quickly to address the concerns and quell any doubts. Most times, PR situations are at least partially caused by the brand itself. Whether it’s an oil spill, a safety recall or a CEO who said something they shouldn't, brands need to get in front of it to show that the mistake was an anomaly that doesn’t represent the way they do business most of the time.
Last month, however, a mixture that was part real world events and part PR crisis landed on Skittles' doorstep through no action of their own. Donald Trump Jr., the son of the Republican nominee for president, tweeted a graphic that included a bowl of Skittles with the words, “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.” Whether you think the sentiment of the graphic is right or wrong, the tweet caused a stir online with passionate arguments both defending and attacking it. Pretty soon, Skittles was trending in a way that must have made them uncomfortable.
Keep in mind, the idea of this graphic is not new, but now it’s being tweeted by the son of a major candidate in a heated election who also is someone who is a lightning rod for attention, online and otherwise. Rightly, Skittles, through its parent company Mars Inc., felt that they had to respond. A little more than four hours later, Mars tweeted this response; “Skittles are candy; refugees are people. It’s an inappropriate analogy. We respectfully refrain from further comment, as that could be misinterpreted as marketing.” The tweet went viral and was roundly praised by fellow tweeters and PR professionals. What is so effective about it?
- It neutralizes the crisis.
The controversy around Skittles wasn’t their fault, and I'm sure that there were some who wanted to avoid the whole conversation entirely, especially considering that the attacks online weren’t directed at Skittles, per se. But customers expect brands to be as aware of what's going on as they are, and there’s no denying that what was going on involved Skittles. In a simple statement, the brand acknowledged what happened, announced that they did not endorse the graphic and moved on.
- It takes a stand.
I would love to have been a fly on the wall for the meeting where this response was designed. It would have been easy enough to say, “Skittles and Mars Inc. do not endorse or speak for any candidate, nor do we authorize any use of our name in material disseminated by any campaign. Thank you,” and call it a day. I’m sure announcing a position caused a lot of anxiety and hand-wringing over at Mars. Political campaigns are nearly always divisive, and most brands want nothing to do with splitting their customer base up. However, Skittles found a way to give a response that was substantive, thoughtful and human without being overly controversial. The brand doesn’t weigh in on the refugee crisis; it only defends its name when used in a way it found to be inappropriate. They repeated what many users were saying online, that the refugee crisis is more complicated than a bowl of candy and that the two should have very little to do with each other.
- It doesn’t grandstand.
The best part of the response, to me, is the quick exit. The brand addresses the issue and then immediately turns the page. They understood that any sustained communication on their part could look thoughtless and crass, which would completely backfire in a situation in which the issue is insensitivity. Skittles pulled off the PR coup because, in their restraint, we are now talking about them positively. They seized an opportunity without seeming opportunistic, and in the process reminded us that a brand can be pretty human sometimes.
No brand wants to deal with a crisis, especially one that isn’t of their making, but things happen, and the way you distinguish yourself is by being alert, being a little daring and being decent. Skittles proved how sweet that can be.