The Year of the Recall Response
By Gene Grabowski
It was the day before Halloween, 2007. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Consumers Union Senior Director of Product Safety Planning Don Mays teamed up to deliver an ominous—and, to some industry insiders, downright frightening—message about the future of consumer product safety efforts in the United States. At a Capitol Hill news conference in which they dubbed 2007 “The Year of the Recall,” the Speaker called for the embattled head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Nancy Nord, to step down. Don Mays demanded stricter measures to keep dangerous products off the shelves. And those sentiments were echoed lawmaker after lawmaker trooped to the lectern to chastise industry leaders and regulatory officials after a record-setting year in which 472 consumer products had been recalled to date.
It seems as if the politicians have a hot issue on their hands. And recent data reported by legal services information provider Thomson West only reinforces the fact that it’s going to get hotter in the coming months. According to the study, which was released in mid-December, 61 percent of Americans are worried or very worried about product safety; 55 percent are more worried about product safety than they were a year ago; and 73 percent responded that they have owned a recalled product.
Simply put, 2008 is shaping up to be a very scary year—with increased scrutiny of product safety and intensified efforts to keep hazardous products off the shelves—not just at the CPSC, but at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and any other government agency that has oversight authority. Perhaps most important, recalls are attracting ever more media attention on any manufacturer, retailer or wholesaler that issues a recall.
Of the 73 percent of respondents who reported they owned a recalled product in the Thomson West survey, only those owning recalled automobiles outranked those who had purchased a recalled food product. And with words like E. coli, melamine, and Salmonella still permeating newspapers, magazines, the airwaves and the Internet, one can safely assume that every food brand logo potentially looks like a bullseye to lawmakers, regulators or media outlets eager to make headlines.
With the deck so heavily stacked against the food industry in 2008, what can those caught in the recall crosshairs do to avoid losing hundreds of millions of dollars in litigation, and even more in brand credibility and trust? The answer is simple: Take a lesson from those who have been there before—for 2007 could just as easily be have been dubbed “The Year of the Recall Response.”
Pet Food: Taking Decisive Action
The public has very little patience for companies or industries that are perceived to have caused harm to vulnerable populations—and, other than children, there is no more vulnerable population than pets. FDA officials have reported that the number of inquiries they received with regard to the 2007 pet food crisis dwarfed the number they received for any food-related recall in recent history. In cases such as these, emotions run high and the potential for disaster increases exponentially, making an effective communications response absolutely imperative for companies, or entire industries, that must protect their brands and calm a nervous consumer base. What can we learn from the pet food industry’s crisis response?
1. Think like your consumers. While every recall response is different, there is one piece of advice that applies across the board: Think like your consumers. What is their mindset? What do they need to hear? From whom do they need to hear it? These factors will ultimately decide whether a company’s brand credibility and trust are going to survive. In the pet food recalls, it wasn’t hard to approach the situation from the consumers’ point of view. Pet-owners were worried and extremely upset. They wanted to know that every precaution was being taken to keep their pets safe. And, above all, they wanted to believe the person telling them that everything was going to be okay. These early determinations guided every aspect of the recall response and greatly contributed to the success of the measures outlined below.
2. Take action. As the old adage dictates, actions always speak louder than words. But, in this regard, the pet food industry faced a unique challenge in that, at the outset of the campaign, there were no answers available as to the source of the pet food adulteration. Because of the situational analysis described above, the industry knew that fast action was necessary. So, rather than go into period of “radio darkness” until answers could be provided, they established the National Pet Food Commission, a group of industry, regulatory and scientific leaders charged with getting to the bottom of the crisis. This move shifted the pet food industry from a perception that they were part of the problem, to a perception that they were part of the solution—and it bought valuable time for the industry to identify the root cause of the crisis.
3. Let your allies speak for you. In crisis communications, the messenger is often more important than the message itself. And because the credibility of those telling the public that the vast majority of pet food products (99 percent by some accounts) still on the shelves was of critical importance, the pet food industry wisely let trusted and disinterested voices do the talking. In an example of crisis preparedness that is all too rare today, the industry had cultivated relationships with veterinarians long before the crisis hit and was able to —with the help of outside crisis communications counselors—get them placed for television and print interviews and assist them in posting to the high-authority blogs covering the recall. Letting third-party advocates deliver the key messages greatly enhanced their believability and made it that much harder for the industry’s detractors to make their case. A Synovate E-Nation survey conducted just weeks after the first pet food recall led one researcher to say, “For the most part, people feel their pets were unaffected by the recall.” Industry leaders credit third-party advocates with much of that success.
Spinach: Targeting the Media
The spinach recall of 2006-2007 was, in many respects, a classic food recall case. But, an examination of the recall response that followed the E. coli outbreak that nearly crippled the spinach producers of California demonstrates the power of communications tactics that are often overlooked by those embroiled in a recall crisis. What can we learn from their efforts?
1. Control the picture of the crisis. To quote yet another clichéd adage, a picture speaks a thousand words—but in an age when communications battles are fought in thirty-second TV and Internet clips, pictures can be worth a lot more than that. At the outset of the spinach crisis, the only pictures of the crisis available for public consumption were of spinach being pulled from shelves and questionable farming and handling industry practices. Soon thereafter, however, farmers in California opened their doors to visual media outlets in order to show rather than tell the public all that was being done to safeguard spinach crops. Pictures of modern processing facilities that took great care in protecting crops from contamination were beamed all across the country and helped the public come to the conclusion that the crisis was temporary and not the fault of responsible spinach growers.
2. Identify which media outlets the media is listening to. Whenever a big story breaks, there are always particular media outlets, depending on geography, subject matter or other considerations, that jump out in front and control the story from start to finish—and from whom other media outlets take their cues. The spinach recall was no different. By focusing greater attention on California’s local TV stations, the Los Angeles Times and the regional California Associated Press bureaus—the spinach outbreak’s media outlet leaders—the spinach growers were able to influence every subsequent story about the recall, no matter where in the world it was being reported. The grower’s made these media outlets’ inquiries a top priority and proactively offered them information as it became available. As this case demonstrates, knowing to whom the media is listening is imperative to managing their coverage and ensuring that they’re telling your side of the story.
3. Identify the tipping point. In every crisis situation there is a tipping point, a moment when the crisis has been contained and the public is ready to move forward. This is not the time to breathe a sigh a relief, but rather an opportunity to begin branding again and redefine a company or industry as a leader in preventing a similar crisis from recurring. Once the spinach recall was in the rearview mirror, the industry didn’t rest. It continued pushing stories about enhanced safety measures, reinforcing the fact that the spinach industry was committed to safety first.
Toys: Taking Responsibility
An examination of the toy industry’s response to the lead paint recalls provides keen insights for any company – in any industry – facing a recall. In the discussion of the pet food recalls above, we saw how little tolerance the public has for companies that are perceived to have harmed vulnerable consumer populations. And to get a sense of the anxiety surrounding the lead paint recalls, just take the public reaction to the pet food recall and multiply it tenfold. In cases such as these, there is no spin, no dodging tough questions and absolutely no room for error. Put in a tough spot—right around the holiday season, no less—toy companies offered a shining example of how to not only protect, but enhance, brand reputation in a crisis situation. What can we learn from their experience?
1. Take responsibility. The sin/repentance/redemption model is one of the oldest in the communications industry. Taking responsibility for a recall, and for rectifying the situation as soon as possible, is the most effective technique for turning a two-week feature story into a one-day news item that might very well be buried on the back pages, so when stuck between a rock and hard place, don’t be afraid to step up and face the music. When the toy industry announced early on that their own questionable manufacturing processes in China were to blame for the lead paint recalls, and that they were taking immediate measures to recall affected products and ensure the safety of those currently on the shelves, it gave the public precisely what it was
demanding: Answers, reassurances and action.
2. Speak directly to your consumers. In the most sensitive recall situations, when the timely release of information makes third-party validation impractical, don’t rely on the media to deliver your message for you. Rather, speak to consumers directly via means that cannot filter the information you wish to share. Throughout the lead paint recalls, the toy industry took out full page advertisements in major print and online publications that walked consumers through the problem, the response and the measures being taken to prevent such a crisis from ever occurring again. And in so doing, they took back control of the message, and thus, the overarching story.
3. Don’t forget about your retailers. In a recall situation, retailers are the first line of defense. If they turn against you, your customers are sure to follow. So, be sure to communicate with those who control your brand reputation and trust in its most crucial moment—the point of sale. During the lead paint recalls, manufacturers armed retailers with answers to any question that a consumer might pose. And sharing this vital information not only better enabled retailers to protect their own business interests, but also made them de facto partners in defusing the crisis. Including special content for retailers on the corporate website, distributing question-and-answer sheets and message points via e-mail, and engaging C-Suite retail executives in one-to-one conversations are all advisable courses of action in a recall situation.
What Can We Expect in 2008?
The “Year of the Recall” not only provided valuable lessons for companies and industries that will undoubtedly face similar challenges in 2008; it also offered insights into how recall responses will have to evolve if they are to remain effective. Here are two tips to remember about the coming year.
1. New media aren’t so new anymore. Having an Internet component to a recall response strategy used to be viewed as novel. Now it is an absolute necessity. Today, bloggers often serve as the gatekeepers to the mainstream media and consumers turn to the Web for information with increasing frequency, so ensure that you have a presence in cyberspace. Post CEO or Board of Directors recall statements to your website; identify the high-authority bloggers and monitor what they’re saying; consider creating your own blog or posting your own messages to existing ones; start a pay-per-click campaign; and optimize your website to ensure that your messages cut through the clutter.
2. A competitor’s recall must be treated as your own. It used to be that a competitor’s recall was good news. Today that’s no longer the case. When another company in your industry issues a recall, prepare for the media spotlight to shine on you next. At the very least, take the opportunity to differentiate your brand from those that are falling short and define yourself as a leader in safety efforts.
Gene Grabowski, a Senior Vice President at Levick Strategic Communications and 2007 winner of PRNews’ Crisis Manager of the Year Award, is a seasoned communications professional and former journalist who leads high-profile accounts for major law firms, Fortune 500 companies, trade associations and government agencies. A former White House news reporter, Grabowski is an authority on a variety of issues, including crisis communication and food and consumer-product recalls. Contact him at [email protected].