Companies Are Learning to Respond When Their Brands Are Slighted

Thom Weidlich 06.07.18


Sanofi got some positive ink last week for its cheeky reply to Roseanne Barr after the comedian contended that taking one of its drugs may have caused her to blurt a racist statement. That reminded us that the past couple years have seen several examples of companies similarly defending their consumer brands with quick retorts on social media.

The approach seems to find public support. We think this is because the responses are typically light-hearted, not defensive, and yet forthright. They seem to humanize the companies. It’s also interesting that the Twitter posts are for the most part so-called subtweets: They refer only obliquely, if at all, to the message they respond to.

We believe these defenses have worked despite our contention that generally humor doesn’t work in crisis communications — and some of these, like Sanofi’s, do use humor. But in these cases, the companies have found themselves in such absurd situations, the approach succeeds.

The occurrences we have in mind, not surprisingly, arise from the world of politics.

On Tuesday, May 29, Barr issued a racist tweet about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. ABC almost immediately announced it would cancel her show, Roseanne, just as it was being revived. Then Barr (pictured, with co-star John Goodman) pulled a fast one: She said her Ambien use may have caused her to write the unfortunate message.

Sanofi, maker of the sleeping pill, decided it needed to respond. It did so via Twitter (it’s good to reply to a social-media crisis in the same channel in which it originates). The company wrote, in part: “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

Ambien Ads

The public response was wildly positive, with many people tweeting that they should be forgiven for their own bad behavior because they had taken the sleeping pill.

The story reminds us of candy maker Mars having to defend its Skittles product in September 2016 after Donald Trump Jr. tweeted during the heat of the presidential campaign. Trump Jr. sent out a meme with a picture of Skittles and a message that read, “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful?” He added his own comment to the tweet: “This image says it all. Let’s end the politically correct agenda that doesn’t put America first.”

It was viewed as an attack on refugees. McLean, Va.-based Mars hit back, righteously: “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy.”

“Skittles could teach a master class in public relations,” CNN reporter Jill Disis wrote in her story about the company’s response. She quoted a Twitter user: “Who knew Skittles would turn out to be the humane voice in this election.”

About two weeks later, Tic Tac felt the need to pipe in after the now-infamous Access Hollywoodtape of Donald Trump (senior) bragging about sexual assault. At one point he says, “I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her.”

The mint brand tweeted: “Tic Tac represents all women. We find the recent statements and behavior completely inappropriate and unacceptable.”

Tiki Torches

Then in August 2017, when white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying torches — specifically, Tiki Brand torches — the company responded on Facebook: “TIKI Brand is not associated in any way with the events that took place in Charlottesville and are deeply saddened and disappointed. We do not support their message or the use of our products in this way. Our products are designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friends connect with each other at home in their yard.”

We named that one of the best-handled crisis communications responses of last year, noting that the company had monitored social media and, seeing the negative messages, knew it had to speak out. As we wrote, “The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with some commenters noting that the company took a harder stance against racism than the White House did.”

So, it seems some companies have found a way to quickly defend themselves in politically sensitive situations.

Photo Credit: Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock

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