PR Insider: Handling Communications During a Product Recall


As PR professionals are well aware, honesty and transparency are the cornerstones of any good communications strategy. It’s no different when it comes to product recalls. There was a time when regulatory bodies were not as efficient as they are today, and consumer safety was not a highly regarded aspect of business. There was also a time when it was easier for companies to sweep issues under the rug to minimize brand impact. However, in today’s regulatory and high-speed communications environment, that’s not only ill advised ethically, it’s impossible.

Todd Harris
Todd Harris

The underlying current that threatens many recall communications strategies is the desire to save money. By following that ethos and seeking immediate cost savings, companies often end up paying that savings back with interest. For example, much of the over $12 million in fines levied by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in 2014 were from infractions incurred in the past, in some cases nearly a decade ago.

Companies can also be punished long-term if any hint of shady business hits the Twittersphere. The resulting fallout from brand damage or litigation can drag out for years, leaving a black mark that is incredibly hard to wash off.

Sometimes it’s difficult for companies to pass up short-term monetary savings in the heat of a recall when unplanned losses are adding up quickly. However, by rooting the communications strategy in the two bastions of business ethics, honesty and transparency, organizations will position themselves for long-term success.

How a company puts its communications strategy into action depends in large part on the company and the industry at hand, but one fact that will remain constant is the importance of preparation. Who are the key stakeholders? What channels will be most effective to communicate with them? By asking these, and many more questions ahead of time, the company will already be a step ahead if a recall occurs. If a recall hits an unprepared company, the result is usually a frantic game of catch up while scrambling to put out fires as they develop. This makes it incredibly hard to get ahead of the situation and proactively address potential issues.

Preparation is crucial because the most engaged consumers will often be the first to chime in if a recall happens. It’s important to be prepared right when the recall hits as that can often decide whether this vocal group will be brand champions or critics as the recall progresses, often setting the tone for the entire event as well as the aftermath.

It’s also important to think about media strategy ahead of time. The media can help or hurt when it comes to a recall. News outlets help disperse information to consumers, but also have a vested interest in uncovering the intricacies of the event, and companies generally want to minimize a recall’s overall profile and media coverage. The degree to which an organization will want to actively engage the media will be largely determined by the company’s ability to identify and directly contact consumers that have the affected product.

For instance, if the affected product poses an immediate threat to consumers and the company is struggling to reach them, it’s an issue. In this scenario, depending on a number of factors, the media can be a good avenue to stop potential injuries that will surely impact that brand more than a few more news stories. However, if the company plans ahead and has clear channels of communication to consumers, they can rely more heavily on those avenues to ensure safety hazards are addressed and subsequent injuries minimized.

The degree to which the media proactively seeks to cover a recall is generally determined by the existing media profile of the company, the size of the recall, and the potential harm to consumers. Regardless, clear channels of internal communication should be established ahead of time along with appropriate media contacts. This step will ensure there is a cohesive, informed voice coming from the company when a recall hits. Conflicting, scattered, and incomplete information will always erode consumer trust, no matter how large or small the recall. A uniform voice, however, illustrates the company’s commitment to safety and can even be an opportunity to strengthen consumer relationships.

As organizations drill down further, they will want to look at all the other points of contact with consumers. Contact centers are a prime example. Ensuring all communications with consumers are handled quickly and accurately is paramount to ensuring complete coverage. It’s not just about having the latest social media monitoring tools; make sure you are remembering the fundamentals and that contact center representatives are up to speed and constantly updated, along with the website, social media pages and employees who also have a powerful voice.

PR professionals are in a unique position to provide less biased guidance and should be looking beyond the immediate impact on the balance sheet to provide a holistic view of the situation. By pushing the organization to plan ahead and even practice mock recalls, it will stand a much better chance of minimizing the final brand impact. It’s also a great opportunity for the communications team to boost their profile with the management team and further illustrate their value to the company.

Todd Harris is vice president of recalls for Stericycle ExpertSOLUTIONS, a global leader in product recall, retrieval, returns, quality audit and automotive solutions.Todd is a recognized industry authority on product recall management and execution, responsible for all aspects of recall service offerings. Follow Stericycle: @SteriExperts