For the second time in four years, the maker of the sweet candy Skittles found itself unwittingly dragged into a bitter news story, playing a role in a political narrative in which the brand surely didn’t want any part. Yet its overall performance — a simple statement, a tweet from its corporate parent, an explicit reference to not doing any marketing — has managed to get rave reviews from corporate communication experts.
For anyone who missed it, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted a meme Monday that included a picture of a bowl of Skittles and the following (punctuation-challenged) caption: "If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful?" Trump's son added his own comment -- "This image says it all. Let's end the politically correct agenda that doesn't put America first. #trump2106". The tweet was met with a viral uproar online.
As others have noted, Skittles didn't appear too fond of the tweet. But it's important to note that it didn't respond with a tweet on its widely followed Skittles handle. Rather, it shared its response with a writer for The Hollywood Reporter that was retweeted some 27,000 times -- and had its corporate parent post the statement on its Twitter account.
"They were prompt. They were pragmatic, and they used the right voice," said Carreen Winters, who leads the corporate reputation practice at the public relations firm MWW. "They didn’t inappropriately use humor in the way some brands do for a story that’s not funny. It really was the trifecta of getting it right."
The response was viewed as pitch-perfect for several reasons. For one, Mars Inc., the parent company of subsidiary Wrigley, which makes Skittles, got the response out quickly. They made a simple statement, calling the comparison "inappropriate," even if it wasn't technically an analogy.
And the company explicitly said Skittles was not trying to do any marketing with its comment, issuing the response from the more serious Twitter handle of the corporate parent instead of the more playful Skittles account, helping to distance it from any semblance of brand-building. "There’s a fine line between saying something that changes your role and saying something that exacerbates the situation," Winters said.
Skittles, it should be noted, has had some practice with the social media maelstrom before. Back in 2012, the brightly-colored candy brand suddenly found itself an emblem of the race debate and protests that followed the death of Trayvon Martin, who had been carrying a packet of Skittles when he was shot and killed.
Bags of Skittles were held up in protests, resold to raise money for Martin's family, and piled into temporary memorials for the black teenager, reported the New York Times in 2012. "Like the hoodie sweatshirt he was wearing, the candy has been transformed into a cultural icon, a symbol of racial injustice that underscores Trayvon’s youth and the circumstances surrounding his death," the newspaper wrote.
Many questioned on social media whether Skittles was benefiting from the attention with higher sales, prompting Wrigley to make a statement offering condolences. And in phrases that echoed the latest response, the company said it felt "it inappropriate to get involved or comment further as we would never wish for our actions to be perceived as an attempt of commercial gain following this tragedy."
That time around, not all reviews were glowing. Some people suggested they should offer to invest in black communities; the response was called "subdued." An AdWeek columnist wrote "this isn't business as usual, and running out a few predictable lines vetted by the legal department won't cut it."
Yet had Skittles offered to do more or donate more, it could have easily been seen as capitalizing on the moment by trying to earn good publicity at precisely the wrong time. Other brand advisers suggest a limited, humble response is the better route. "Risk is often greater than reward," Anthony Johndrow, an adviser on corporate reputation, said in an email to the Washington Post. "Emotional, negative public events or issues are best avoided or treated with humility if your brand is somehow dragged in."
After all, when companies have engaged on social media after getting unwittingly pulled in to a big story, they've been met with mixed reviews. Recall when McDonald's sent out a tweet -- and later offered a free year of food -- to Charles Ramsey, the man who helped rescue Cleveland kidnapping victim Amanda Berry in 2013. Ramsey had casually mentioned he was eating McDonald's when he heard Berry trying to escape, and many people thought McDonald's should do something in response.
But after the fast-food chain sent a tweet commending the girls' courage and adding "way to go Charles Ramsey -- we'll be in touch," some smelled a whiff of marketing amid a horrific tragedy. One P.R. adviser called it "news-jacking," or "taking advantage of a situation to help their brand." Another column writer said the company "seems content to piggyback on his sensation." Even if well-intentioned, such comments can quickly become misconstrued.
That's why Winters believes Wrigley's wisely direct remark that it would "respectfully refrain from further comment, as that could be misinterpreted as marketing" -- indeed, a company spokeswoman declined to comment when sent questions for this story -- could be something more brands imitate in the future. "I think you will probably see a lot of mimicry of that approach going forward," she said. "It’s worked for Skittles more than once. I think you’ll see other brands follow their lead."