Several years ago, I interviewed Denny Lynch, SVP of communications for Wendy’s International and a member of its crisis management team, for a story I was writing for a risk management publication. Some of you may recall the case of the missing finger that was set in motion on the evening of March 22, 2005, by Anna Ayala, a customer who claimed she found a severed finger in her chili.
That was a crisis. Handling that crisis was almost textbook: Assemble, assess, strategize and respond. But what happens when your brand is in crisis, but responding will create an even bigger crisis?
Over the past several weeks, the Skittles brand of candy has been part of the national conversation regarding the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26. Martin was shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., a gated community. Zimmerman claimed self-defense in Martin’s death, but the only items found on Martin were a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona Iced Tea.
According to Change.org, more than 100,000 people have started petitions on the site calling for the prosecution of Zimmerman. The petition started by Martin’s parents has over 2 million signatures, the fastest-growing campaign in the site’s history. Thousands of people around the country have taken to the streets.
Within all the protests, Skittles has taken center stage. Protestors are asked to bring Skittles with them to the marches. A Minnesota man is selling T-shirts that say, “This Is Not a Hoodie”; each order includes a bag of Skittles at no cost. Photos are being posted on social media sites and in national newspapers of people donning hoodies with a Skittles bag taped to their mouth, symbolizing the silence from law enforcement. Mock Skittles bags with Martin’s picture and graphics of guns filled with the bite-size candies are just a few of the images that are now saturating the Internet. Notably, copyright infringement cases are not being filed by Skittles parent company Wrigley (itself a subsidiary of Mars Inc.)
Wrigley is in a difficult position. The Skittles brand is being used by large groups, individuals and organizations to advance a message of injustice and wrongful death, even murder. The immediate issues for Wrigley are to determine the sentiment activists have about the brand and how to manage their expectations.
Crowds are unpredictable. It’s no coincidence that the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. In fact, Bernays based much of his strategies for promotion around psychoanalytics, especially as it related to crowd dynamics.
What’s the Plan?
Trayvon Martin’s death is a tragedy that connects emotionally with all ages and cultural groups. The protests are personal, and the public is hungry for more information. Communities are calling for justice—and not just from the Sanford police department. With little movement from law enforcement, crowds are turning their passion to others involved in the tragedy, including Skittles. In just one week, the brand has gone from being a symbol of an innocent victim to one of corporate greed.
Among the questions being asked: How much money is Wrigley making from this? Will Wrigley donate any of the money toward Martin's case?
Wrigley has released a simple, appropriate statement: "We are deeply saddened by the news of Trayvon Martin’s death and express our sincere condolences to his family and friends. We also respect their privacy and feel 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.”
It is enough. Any attempt by Wrigley to redirect the conversation away from Skittles or get directly involved in the conversation would be dangerous at this point. Assessments can be made later, but for now the nation is watching. The Skittles brand will survive; it’s been a favorite since it was introduced in 1974. The immediate need for Wrigley is to focus on protecting the professional reputation of the company. Any additional comments on this issue will direct Skittles right back into the conversation. The need to communicate must be weighed against the potential harm the company may cause by further addressing any issues related to Martin.
Kathy Scott is the corporate PR Director and social media strategist for Cygnus Business Media. She was also a contributor to PR News’ Crisis Management Guidebook Vol. 4. She can be reached at Kathy.Scott@cygnus.com.