Total Recall: Pulling The Plug On Products Requires Grace Under Fire

Crisis management is firmly imbedded in every communicator's portfolio of responsibilities, but it's by no means the job perk that gets them out of bed every morning - especially in today's hyperbolic media cycle, where every organization is under the microscope. But, increased scrutiny from constituent groups or not, the PR industry has weathered its fair share of crises in recent years, with those involving product recalls making up a majority of the management missteps. Consider behemoth corporations such as Mattel, Apple and Dell - all of these giants have executed a highly publicized product recall within the last year, making the sector of crisis communications a prime topic du jour. These examples, among many others, set the stage for PR best practices when it comes time to pull the plug on a product before an audience of fierce (and litigious) onlookers. *Address the white elephant in the room: Before the need for a product recall ever becomes clear, PR execs need to get in front of senior managers and discuss the c-word. "Many managers may be uncomfortable talking about the possibility of a crisis," says Jennifer Horowitz of Dittus Communications, urging communicators to confront the issues before they ever become relevant and build plans accordingly. "Don't have a plan for all crises; rather, have one that can be adapted to all crises," she says. "For a plan to be viable, it must cover all angles." During the planning stages of handling a potential product recall - or any crisis in general - the following "dos" must be addressed: Solicit input from every department within the organization to determine how their expertise could be utilized in the time of a crisis. Consider the history of the company and its mission. Then-Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke famously turned to the brand's credo in the early moments of the Tylenol crisis, and it has now become a textbook example of how to handle a recall. Access stakeholder relationships. A product recall will impact every stakeholder group in a different way, and these nuances must be anticipated before the frenzy of the crisis itself. *Over-Communicate: If and when the need for a product recall occurs, communications managers should address the issue as they would any crisis (see sidebar) with slight adjustments. One universal best practice, though, is to communicate early and often. Don't wait for the news to circulate through traditional and digital media outlets; rather, get out in front of the story immediately. "Going undercover won't result in good coverage," says Ashley McCown, EVP of Solomon McCown & Co. "Stories will be written regardless. If you don't engage, you can't impact the story." A prime example of a failure to over-communicate is that of Menu Foods. During the pet food recall that began in February 2007, the company's Web site was void of information; all links to pages of corporate information were either broken or led to a home page with pictures of cats and dogs. A "recall page" did have press releases regarding the incident, but information was still scarce. "The lack of information on their Web site tells people they really don't care about keeping the public informed," says Katie Paine, CEO of KDPaine & Partners. ChemNutra, on the other hand, was more upfront with the crisis, posting every article about the recall on its blog and listing media contacts. "If you want people to hear your side of the story, it really helps to have effective spokespeople," Paine says. "Even more useful is enabling the media to contact them." *Leverage digital's interactive capabilities: Granted, product recalls create an overwhelming number of challenges for communications executives. Not only is the media banging down their doors, but there are the victims of the faulty products, the victims' families, and their legal representatives - all of whom want answers. Then, there are the investors who want to know how the situation will affect their holdings. It's enough to prompt a nervous breakdown for any person, but PR professionals' reputations are made and broken on their ability to handle this cyclone. Digital platforms are their greatest opportunity. "Given today's information-rich society, versus even four or five years ago, you have such a huge variety of communication outlets or mechanisms at your will," says Anne Camden, public relations manager at Dell. "You need to make sure you leverage them all as appropriate." There may be a tendency to balk from cyberspace when a crisis hits, as its proverbial anarchy is, what some would consider, a major contributor to PR's downfall during the crisis. But take a deep breath (or a Xanax) and capitalize on the following saving graces: Video: A direct, intimate connection between the CEO and the affected audiences is essential in a recall. Mattel's communications team was right on the mark in this regard. It posted a streaming video on its Web site in which CEO Bob Eckert candidly addresses viewers with his concern and his commitment to safety. "In any crisis, use all available tools," Paine says. "No one gets their news from just one source anymore. And if you don't put up an explainer video on YouTube, someone else will." Blogosphere: In a product recall scenario, bloggers can be your best friend - or your worst nightmare. The key in this case is to keep them as informed as you would traditional media. Dell did just this after announcing its widespread battery recall in August 2006. The communications team set up a Web site telling customers how to get a replacement battery, and used its customer-service blog to post comments from staffers and executives. And, instead of burying negative comments, the company elicited responses from its most annoyed customers, in turn garnering praise for its transparency. *Get third-party validation: Once the product recall has been completed, the rebuilding stage begins. This involves rebuilding trust, reputation and brand strength, all of which can be done with the help of a third party, who can come in and independently confirm the improvements in whichever system was previously at fault. CONTACTS: Jennifer Horowitz,; Ashley McCown,; Anne Camden, 512.723.7689; Katie Paine, 15 Steps To Effective Crisis Management 1. Alert crisis communications team immediately. 2. Convene the crisis communications team either in person or on a conference call. 3. Gather facts; do not assume or guess. 4. Assign tasks and continue to gather facts to answer basic questions. 5. Assess the media. 6. Assess stakeholders. 7. Develop key messages. 8. Develop communications materials. 9. Designate an appropriate spokesperson. 10. Develop appropriate actions. 11. Develop appropriate responses - three key messages. 12. Obtain necessary approvals. 13. Notify key stakeholders. 14. Continue to monitor and evaluate the situation. 15. Develop a plan for recovery. Source: Dittus Communications

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