EL SEGUNDO, CA: After initiating a major crisis communications effort two weeks ago in the wake of recalling 967,000 Fisher-Price toys, Mattel was forced to launch an even larger plan last week after announcing it would recall 18 million more toys in 43 countries.
The first recall involved toys from the Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer lines that were suspected of containing hazardous levels of lead paint. This time around, the world's largest toymaker took a more proactive approach and used more communications vehicles to reach parents across the globe.
Lisa Marie Bongiovanni, VP of corporate communications at Mattel, who is working on the crisis during her maternity leave, said being more proactive was a necessity because the recall involved two separate issues.
The second recall involved almost 500,000 lead-paint-covered die-cast toy cars of the character Sarge from the Pixar film Cars, along with another 18.2 million toys from the Barbie, Polly Pocket, Batman, and Doggie Day Care lines containing small magnets that could harm children if swallowed. All of the recalled toys were made in China.
"It takes a very big effort to communicate with as many parents as possible and as quickly as possible, so they understand and are not confused about what the issues are," said Bongiovanni, who called this the one of the largest communications challenges she's experienced in her seven years at Mattel. "That was the main reason we were more proactive and took the steps that we did."
Those steps included buying ad space in major newspapers across the country to address parents with a personal letter from Bob Eckert, Mattel's chairman and CEO. Mattel, which is working with Weber Shandwick and Cone on these efforts, also made its consumer Web site more interactive with a videotaped message from Eckert. Bongiovanni said that helped to further clarify the situation.
She said Mattel's first priority was to convey the facts and issues to parents that would allow them to determine if they owned the toys in question.
The morning the recall was announced, Eckert did an SMT. Later that evening and the following morning, Mattel executives did interviews on CNBC, CNN, ABC, Fox News, and Today, among others. The company also did interviews in print outlets and wire services, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, the AP, and Bloomberg. Mattel also spoke to the BBC and other global media outlets.
"The morning of the announcement, we also had a conference call press conference with our CEO, followed by one-on-one interviews for those with more in-depth questions," Bongiovanni said. "This was done on a global scale."
The press conference was immediately made available on the Web site. Bongiovanni said the corporate communications team interacted via e-mail with numerous reporters who needed quick clarifications after the press conference. Blogs were also "definitely on our radar," she added, but Mattel did not respond to any directly.
Bongiovanni said the biggest challenge is making sure parents get the right information. That task becomes all the more difficult when media outlets break the story without all of the information, as they did before the Consumer Product Safety Commission made the official announcement.
Because of the recall's global scope, Bongiovanni said staffers were answering media and consumer inquiries 24/7 from Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the US. "Our goal was to make sure we had as close to a 100% response rate as possible," she said.
Within Mattel's consumer affairs group, it set up toll-free numbers for the magnet issue, the lead issue, and the Fisher-Price issue.
Bongiovanni said another message was to talk about the steps Mattel was taking to rectify the situation and to remind people that it is "made up of moms and dads, as well, so we get it from the corporate and personal perspective."
Tim Tinker, SVP at Widmeyer Communications and a risk communications expert, said this approach - addressing consumers as fellow parents - has been effective.
Tinker said Mattel has done a "pretty decent job" overall with its communications and operational response, but will likely face "other serious issues, such as public health implications, possible litigation issues, and, now, disposal of all the toys" down the road.