PR News Checklist: Sailing the Perfect Storm: Product ?Recalls in a Most Dangerous Age

(This article was written by Gene Grabowski, vice president of Levick Strategic Communications, and will appear in the upcoming PR News Crisis Management Guidebook, available later this month. The 200-page guidebook includes strategies and tactics for avoiding or managing crises. Contact Amy Jefferies at to pre-order or visit Product recalls are tricky no matter what year it is. In past decades, manufacturers pulled cars off the market as well as foodstuffs, drugs, and sundry other necessities and luxuries. They fretted over stock value. And, of course, they were challenged to ensure that the buying public that trusted them for decades would continue to do so. In post-World War II era, however, American culture was a corporate culture. Ralph Nader and Rachel Carson were isolate voices. Corporate communications advisors had a full arsenal to draw on (to the extent that corporate communications advisors even needed to exist), and only certain war-implicated companies were vilified during Vietnam. If product recalls were tricky then, imagine what's involved today. Today, regulators are monitored by activists. Plaintiffs' lawyers fund non-government organizations (NGOs). News shows do features on product defects. Meanwhile, product recalls all happen in a context of public sentiment poisoned by Enron. The air is hardly less toxic a few WorldComs and Tycos later. The short-term costs are hefty enough. According to a Washington State University study, the average cost of a recall is $540,000, twice that of the average product litigation settlement ($217,000). But the longer-term costs of bungled product recalls are incalculable and, for the manufacturer, often fatal. What, then, does "doing it right" mean? What defines a successful product recall? Success has five facets: Consumer protection. The recall must be managed so no harm or further harm befalls the public. It's a veritably military operation. The logistics are timed and amply planned to achieve coast-to-coast compliance. Brand protection. Brands are based on trust. Trust is based on safety. The product recall must be managed so that the consumer will have the same confidence in a product as before - even if there is no outside villain, as there was in the classic Tylenol case, to ensure corporate exculpation. Corporate standing must remain intact. The good news is that, even in today's world, corporate standing might actually improve as a result of a responsible and well- articulated product recall that increases public confidence in the company's intentions and its ability to make good on those intentions. In other words, crisis can spell opportunity. Relationships with regulatory agencies. Here too, we may see improvement if the company is conspicuously responsive and proactive. Business recovery. With fully successful recalls, total sales revenue is undiminished. For each of these five overriding strategic goals, the communications component is obviously critical. Miscues in one area will vitiate successes in another if, for example, a badly communicated negotiation with the FDA undermines a mountain of positive press placements reinforcing product safety. Planning and readiness are the bywords. Any company manufacturing products that could ever conceivably need to be recalled should have a crisis communications plan. The plan needn't be, and usually shouldn't be, a blueprint as all crisis communications must respond flexibly to unanticipated circumstance. What is needed is a template - something to improvise from, yet identifying action points with enough specificity for periodic training and fire drills. The product recall template will be a close variation on the following: Tasks Done 1. Meet with decision-making team (executive/leadership, communication, expert technical). Within less than two hours, determine known information, what more will be coming in, and what can be said based on what you know now.   2. Activate the plan based on careful assessment of the situation and the expected demands for information by the public, media, and partners.   3. Bring in needed resources (human, technical and mechanical supplies as specified in your pre-planning activities). Activate added personnel and consultants or agencies.   4. Bring together a communication team; brief them on the event, advise on what can be communicated now, and delegate assignments.   5. Meet with upper management to advise on what activities are being done, and when you can anticipate releasing information in accordance with the organization's role in the response.   6. Make telephone contact with the governmental agencies involved to learn what communication they are planning, Coordinate timing for the release of information.   7. Line up your spokesperson or get ready to be the spokesperson. Let them know that you will need them available to the media, and that you want to brief them on the messages prior to their speaking with media. Let them know what background material on the event you can provide to update them, and when they can expect it.   8. Prepare your message development team and review and approve materials yourself for release.   9. Determine the operational hours/days for the communication team throughout the emergency response. * Reassess after 12 hours * Reassess after 24 hours * Reassess after 36 hours * Reassess after 48 hours   10. Make certain to fully communicate and update your staff, board, decision-making team, and partners several times during the first 48 hours.  

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