Lessons from the Year of the Recall: New Best Practices in Crisis Management

The following is an excerpt from the just-published Crisis Communications Desktop Reference from Levick Strategic Communications.

Recalls aren’t new and corporations have long had sound management and communications tools to minimize their impact. However, the current level of frequency and severity is new. So are the global factors that exacerbate public anxiety, especially since the Chinese are involved.

In 2007 – when pet food tainted with melamine, toy parts containing dangerous levels of lead paint, and spinach infected with E-coli dominated the headlines – consumer fears and public scrutiny of product safety reached fever pitch.

According to data released by Thomson West in December 2007, 61% of Americans are worried or very worried about product safety; 55% are more worried about product safety than they were a year ago; and 73% said that they have owned a recalled product.

Themselves targets for criticism, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and other government agencies are, perforce, likely to be more aggressive in the immediate future than at other times in recent memory.

Most important, perhaps, recalls obviously attract unrelenting media attention, as do the manufacturers, retailers, or wholesalers forced to issue one. From there, the bad news is magnified and transmitted to the consumer.

Yesterday’s best practices must be expanded and refined to accommodate this unprecedented public urgency. Particularly important…

Preparation. Have a recall plan ready and train your key people to implement it. Assemble a team on a regular basis in order to build the trust that fast action may one day demand. Anticipate the likeliest recall scenarios and provide action points for each one. Build relationships with third-parties who can echo or validate your messages in the media. Be ready to saturate the Internet with your own recall messages before hostile voices tell the story for you.

Messenger. The messenger is often as important as the message itself. During last year’s pet food recall, a Pet Food Institute was created as a credible industry voice and resource. Its President was equally trained for media inquiries and congressional hearings. Supportive third parties, like respected veterinarian Jim Humphries, were enlisted. Importantly, messengers were recruited and kept informed well before they were asked to speak publicly.

Responsibility. Apologize for what has happened and take full responsibility for rectifying the situation. But be careful: your language must be sufficiently nuanced to convey empathy without conceding liability.

Action. During the 2007 toy recalls, Hasbro instituted a “Total Safety Program” that helped calm a nervous marketplace and satisfy wary regulators. Significantly, Hasbro itself was never at the center of the crisis. But the company understood a cardinal rule of recall management: treat your competitor’s recall as if it were your own. By so doing, you prepare for your own possible public scrutiny as well as help protect an industry in which you have an obviously vital interest.
Like all crises, product recalls allow proactive companies to seize a leadership position and, by so doing, transform crisis into opportunity.