Bailey Calfee
Aug 18, 2023

How and when brands should respond when misinformation goes viral

In recent months, many brand controversies have been rooted in misinformation and false allegations. But experts say it’s not always imperative to right those wrongs.

Photo: Mars, Inc. (used with permission).
Photo: Mars, Inc. (used with permission).

In May, Skittles announced that it had partnered with LGBTQIA+ artists to release a series of limited edition packaging in celebration of Pride month. In an effort to share the power of the Skittles rainbow, five diverse artists designed bold rainbow packages in their own styles.

Three months later, and a month after the Skittles Pride packs left store shelves, the campaign is receiving backlash on social media.

The source of the controversy is X (formerly known as Twitter) account LibsofTikTok, which shared a photo of one of the packs over the weekend. Misconstruing the collaboration’s message, the account alleged that the Skittles “is trying to turn your kids into BLM and LGBTQ+ activists.”

This controversy is one of many recent brand crises rooted a narrative built off of assumptions and misinformation, specifically around the LGBTQIA+ community. For example, Bud Light’s partnership with Dylan Mulvaney was made out to be a wide-reaching campaign rather than a single post on Instagram, and the promotional beer can printed with her face was portrayed as a product that was to be sold in stores.

Likewise, Target’s LGBTQIA+ merchandise received backlash due to untrue claims that trans-inclusive swimwear and products with satanic messaging were being sold in children’s sections. 

But when the narrative of a promotion or a broader campaign gets misconstrued, taken out of context or otherwise spun out of the control of the brand by audiences on social media, it can be difficult to figure out how to wade into the conversation. 

“The moment that you're issuing the press release or putting stuff on social media, then you're in it—anticipate that you might face backlash,” says Dave Duschene, partner, corporate relations at Alpha Advisory Group. “Be prepared that it could become a story and you may be asked for comment.”

There’s no easy way to reel in the rumors, and public statements may only make things worse.

Why now?

The Skittles Pride pack currently facing backlash depicts characters of many different ethnicities skateboarding on a graffitied skate ramp; one of the ramp’s tags reads, “Black trans lives matter.” LibsofTikTok alleged in its post that the packaging features a drag queen, citing it as further proof that Skittles “has gone completely woke.”

In actuality, the packaging depicts six cartoon characters of unspecified gender identity dressed in edgy everyday clothing. Products with this packaging are no longer on store shelves, as the Pride collection was only available through mid July, according to a press release.

But how long ago  a campaign launched or was in the market doesn’t matter when it comes to online vitriol. And the fact that the U.S. is gearing up for a presidential election only exacerbates the issue, says Chris Nurko, Interbrand’s group executive of brand integrity and ethics, as political discourse around the vote could resurface more old campaigns back into the limelight.

“Presidential election cycles amplify and magnify the best and the worst of America and the best and worst of social media as well,” he says.

In any case, marketing campaigns addressing a partisan topic are likely to be used as fodder, as “politicians tend to amplify and bifurcate issues because it's a lot easier to understand black versus white than it is the nuance of gray.”

Online, context—including the timing of the campaign as well as its intended message—can easily be stripped, whether intentionally or not. And users going for a scroll aren’t typically inclined to vet every statement they see on social media. 

“People don't have time to really look into the facts, and sometimes a lie or accusation will go much further than the truth,” says Nurko.

Should brands try to right the misinformation?

It’s a hard fight to win when base-level facts of a campaign, brand offering or partnership are ignored or wilfully misunderstood by an audience. In these cases, a brand’s first instinct might be to make a public attempt to correct the misinformation being spread.

However, most brands on the receiving end of anti-LGBTQIA+ backlash in the past few months have avoided mentioning misinformation in their initial public responses. 

Pros agree that it’s not always imperative to correct misinformation in these cases. For instance, Nurko says that going “tit for tat” when responding to misinformation turns the response into a “retaliatory conversation, and it's not worth the time nor the effort.”

"More often than not, debating the truth of one statement versus another is going to be a losing proposition,” notes Duschene. “People are going to believe what they want to believe and it's going to be near impossible to change their beliefs with a Tweet, Instagram post or news release.”

Sometimes brands are judged based not on what was said, but “what people hear—or what they want to hear,” adds Nurko.

And a correction from a brand is not going to get sensationalised in the way that a misrepresentation of the truth might. “That’s not going to get the coverage,” he says.

“Knowing that, you have to be careful about what you choose to fight. Sometimes it’s best to let a storm in a teacup be a storm in a teacup.”

When and how should brands react?

In some instances, for example if retail partners and employees are being harassed, it’s necessary to clarify the company’s stance, notes Duschene. But oftentimes, making a public statement only serves to “extend the conversation.”

However, if commenting is necessary, brands must ensure that the response doesn’t undercut the original message. “If you're going to engage in a dialogue, engage on a level that reinforces why you engaged or why you're involved in this issue in the first place,” advises Duschene.

When it comes to engaging in partisan socio-political issues, as has been the source of many of this year’s most salient brand controversies, those that took missteps likely did so because the issue didn’t relate to their core values.

“When you know that there's likely going to be a virtue signal or pandering trigger attack and you're prepared for it because you truly understand the issues and stand for it, it will be nothing and it will pass,” notes Nurko. The issues come with “marketing that is trying to lean into an issue without credibility.”

Before attempting to come out on top when an online debate erupts, it’s more important to “consider the stakeholders that you serve,” says Duschene. This is true not only for investors but also employees, customers and retail partners. It could be best to tailor a response only to select groups.

“It’s limiting to think about engagement solely in terms of publicly available channels like social media—keep in mind that you have a multitude of channels that go direct to individual stakeholders,” he notes.

Communication must always be objective-led in these circumstances as well, adds Duschene. “Is your goal to change the opinions of the detractors, or reinforce the opinions of the supporters? And, depending on what you communicate, is that going to achieve that?”

When it comes to recapturing the narrative, it’s easiest to do when a brand is proactive and “your legal, marketing and leadership teams are all aligned,” says Nurko. 

Consider, too, whether the narrative has actually been lost completely, or if core consumers are nonplussed by the public conversation.

“There are 100 narratives depending on the audience,” says Duschene. “If you stay true to your cause, if you say you support a group and continue to support them, you haven't lost the narrative with that segment.”

And it’s worth considering whether your brand ever held a narrative at all with the angry group. If not, the fight isn’t worth it.


Campaign US

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