Candy and immigration policy. Racism and sleep medication. What do these things have in common with each other? On the surface, nothing. But that can change in a few choice keystrokes on social media, leaving real potential for significant reputational harm. Just ask the leaders at Skittles (owned by consumer goods giant Mars, Inc.), and global biopharmaceutical company Sanofi, who found themselves facing the same precarious problem: what to do when a key brand name or product is analogized to, blamed for, or otherwise commandeered by a controversial person connecting it to an equally controversial or sensitive topic? To really make it interesting what if the derogatory, false, or misleading claims are posted on platforms where they can be viewed and shared by millions of people (read: the organization’s stakeholders) in minutes? What to do, indeed.
Social media’s ability to simultaneously destroy (fake news) and empower (#TimesUp, #BlackLivesMatter) is no secret. Given the ubiquity of our devices and how easily accessible these platforms are, it is no surprise social media has become a highly popular medium for people to air their grievances, especially if those grievances involve a powerful organization.
A 2015 study conducted by Edison Research and Jay Baer on the behavioral patterns of U.S. consumers found those who are more active on social media (e.g., daily users versus weekly users) are more likely to be frequent complainers, with Facebook overwhelmingly being the platform of choice for dissatisfied consumers to log their complaints. A separate 2015 poll of 2,000 U.K. consumers found that more than half of respondents who had used social media for customer service preferred it to more traditional platforms like call centers.
There are pros and cons to the dynamic created by social media between everyday individuals, who now have a platform to be heard, and large, powerful organizations, who are more pressured than ever to listen. On the upside, it incentivizes organizations to do the right thing and restores a level of power to people that have traditionally been marginalized. On the downside, we are seeing with growing frequency organizations (and individuals) get roped into the burning spotlight of controversy by no fault of their own. That is, more and more organizations’ reputations are being put at risk on the world’s stage despite not actively having done anything wrong. Two cases in point:
- Skittles and Donald Trump Jr., September 2016 Donald Trump Jr., son of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, tweeted the below to his 2.8 million followers equating Syrian refugees to a bag of poisoned Skittles. The implication for Skittles in this case was having the brand name attached to a controversial figure as well as a highly controversial and sensitive issue in the U.S., being immigration policy, which has nothing to do with candy.
- Sanofi and Roseanne Barr, May 2018 In the very early morning hours of May 29 actress Roseanne Barr tweeted a highly offensive and racially insensitive comment in the comments thread of a conservative blog’s tweet. As a result of the tweet, ABC cancelled Roseanne, the hit series she co-founded and starred in. Prior to her inflammatory tweet, the series had been renewed for a second season after returning to TV in January 2018 following a two-decade hiatus. Roseanne continued tweeting following the show’s cancellation and attempted to place blame for her racist comment on the fact she was on Ambien at the time. Sanofi-owned Ambien is the number one prescribed sleep medication in the U.S. and is known to cause strange side effects including anxiety, delusional thoughts, and aggressive behavior.
In each case, the organizations responded and did so with cool rationale and brevity, much to the admiration and fanfare of their stakeholders. Take a look below to see how exactly Mars, Inc. and Sanofi successfully dodged the lasso of tangential controversy.
So, what can companies and their leaders learn from the responses from Mars, Inc. and Sanofi?
Respond appropriately. If the people your organization cares about are expressing concern, doubt, or a desire to hear from your organization, then a response is necessary. Put yourself in your customers’, shareholders’, or employees’ shoes; would you expect to hear from your organization, given the situation? If the answer is yes, your organization needs to respond to your reasonable stakeholders and address their concerns. Notice Mars, Inc. and Sanofi did not respond directly to (or even mention) the unreasonable person or party who made the inflammatory comments in the first place; doing so would be counterintuitive because it legitimizes the claim, to a degree.
Fight fire with water. In the real world, real fires are put out with water. And so it goes with choking the social-media-fanned flames of irrationality and misplaced outrage. Water is to reason as fire is to unreasonableness. Both Mars, Inc. and Sanofi employed reasoning so genius in its simplicity and obviousness that it succeeded in distancing the organizations from their detractors and their ludicrous comments, while also taking the wind out of their bizarre claims’ sails. In a crisis, organizations must prioritize their reasonable stakeholders and their expectations. And the good thing about reasonable people is they respond well to reason. Use it.
Keep it brief. To quote Shakespeare, one of the greatest wordsmiths of all time, brevity is the soul of wit. Wit can be defined as reasoning power or mental soundness. By keeping their responses brief, Mars, Inc. and Sanofi not only demonstrated their organizations’ strategic intelligence but also their emotional discipline in not allowing nonsensical comments to distract them or needlessly tarnish their reputations.