Mattel tackles crisis with solid comms

The toy company's communications team has worked hard over the past few months to maintain consumers' trust amid a series of recalls involving millions of products.

The toy company's communications team has worked hard over the past few months to maintain consumers' trust amid a series of recalls involving millions of products.

Mattel's CEO Robert Eckert believes words must be backed with action. That philosophy has held especially true as he's led his company through four separate recalls in three months. Less than 3 million of the recalled toys had lead paint issues, while a little more than 17 million were recalled retroactively because magnets didn't meet Mattel's current standards.

"The main strategy has been to be open and transparent," says Lisa Marie Bongiovanni, VP of corporate communications at Mattel. "[Eckert] has [repeatedly] said, 'I hope we're not judged on the issues, but on how we responded to them.' We've been well trusted for 75 years. We had to continue that trust level."

Mattel, which makes more than 800 million toys a year, has dealt with the crisis by making Eckert visible, taking responsibility for its actions, and committing to the appropriate actions going forward.

"After the first recall, we made a commitment [to] continue looking for issues and to tell [consumers] about them [if we find them]," Bongiovanni says. "It's challenging and difficult, but it's the right thing to do. Getting the message across was challenging because the number was so large and media were not talking about [other toy companies' standards]. Consumers understand that we have looked and been honest and open, and I think we get kudos for that."

The in-house communications team of about 10 worked around the clock to manage logistics of the global recall - including creating materials, translating everything into 20 languages, and establishing call centers. Two staffers, including Bongiovanni, were on maternity leave during the crisis. "We didn't think twice about [working while on leave]," she says.

Time management

The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) must lead recall announcements, so that controlled communications timing. Media leaks - from as yet unknown sources - created some of the biggest challenges.

"It puts a lot of pressure on the communications group because we had to honor CPSC," Bongiovanni says. "We weren't ready to talk about it on the consumer side. Media think it's an exciting story, but when readers come looking for answers and we're not ready to give them yet, [it's problematic]."

Weber Shandwick, Mattel's corporate AOR, lent support during the crisis, as did various other agencies in local worldwide markets. Rod Clayton, WS EVP and GM of Southern California, says the Herculean communications effort was mostly executed by the small in-house team and no more than five on-site WS staffers.

"Knowing we could trust each other, lean on each other, and work synergistically kept us going," says Sara Rosales, Mattel VP of brand PR. "We really learned how to use corporate comms strength, brand strength, and internal PR strength to create a dynamic team that was able to overcome a lot of challenges in a short amount of time."

The communications team gives credit to its colleagues for helping manage the crisis. "We tap[ped] other groups that have phenomenal expertise, [such as] Web groups, to make it happen," says Jules Andres, director of corporate communications for Mattel. "People wanted to be involved and were asking to help."

A video showing Eckert at a testing lab helped demonstrate Mattel's commitment to correction and prevention. "It's very helpful for people to see it and hear him talk about it," Andres notes.

Rosales explains that promotion has historically centered on brand marketing (brands include Barbie, Hot Wheels, American Girl, and Fisher-Price). Eckert's visibility was critical in bridging brand and corporate communication.

"[Eckert speaking directly] gave the halo effect of taking responsibility for the brand[s], issues, and communication," Bongiovanni says. "He was very involved in messaging. He [repeatedly noted] that he's a dad, too. He could understand concern. A key message was, 'We aren't just a corporation - we are made up of moms and dads.'"

The recalls prompted Eckert to unify Mattel's various CSR efforts into a formal division (see sidebar) - a move the communications team calls "forward thinking" and "empowering."

"CSR is difficult to communicate in the tough times," says Andres. "Showing that we're going to communicate in difficult times is key. We are going to be [even] more communicative and transparent moving forward to continue trust with stakeholders."

Interactive influence

Social-media monitoring has helped tailor messages during the recalls and going forward. "A lot of moms talked about our Polly Pocket brand because the magnet recall was so prevalent," Rosales says. "There was confusion, so we did a lot of study in reaction to Polly Pocket and created a guarantee. There is a lot of promotion behind the brand going into the holiday season."

Preset fourth-quarter PR plans have been revised and refined. Rosales says many brand campaigns will highlight safety information, and the team has also stepped up communication about how to buy age-appropriate toys. Andres adds that the Web site will be redesigned next year, and the team is also looking at new ways to interact with consumers online.

"It was difficult at times, but when you're doing the right thing it makes it easier," Bongiovanni says. "From that point, all you can do is move forward."

How Mattel is getting back on track

  • United its existing corporate responsibility efforts across the organization in a formalized corporate responsibility division (CRD). Comprising 500 employees worldwide, CRD's mission is to develop and implement worldwide programs to underscore Mattel's commitment to conducting business with integrity and enhance its leadership role in citizenship.
  • Appointed Geoff Massingberd to the newly created position of SVP of corporate responsibility, reporting to the CEO.
  • Announced the formation of Product Integrity Policy and Audit, a function that will combine an internal audit organization and an independent audit organization to monitor Mattel and vendor facilities' compliance with Mattel's product integrity standards.
  • CEO Robert Eckert gave the keynote address at the Business for Social Responsibility annual conference in October to discuss recall issues and maintaining trust.

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