Mattel faces crisis without playing games

Full transparency with all relevant parties has helped company deal with latest toy recall

Full transparency with all relevant parties has helped company deal with latest toy recall

Though much attention is paid to new media, the Mattel recall proves that traditional communications still work very effectively when dealing with a crisis.

Following the second biggest recall this year by Mattel's Fisher-Price unit - which announced the recall of 967,000 toys that may contain hazardous levels of lead paint - the company's first line of outreach was to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

Once the CPSC granted them approval to move forward with their line of communications, retailers were informed. Fisher-Price issued a release announcing the recall, which was in conjunction with a release put out by the CPSC. Media engagement ensued.

"We're answering the media's questions right now," states Brenda Andolina, director of PR and brand marketing, Fisher-Price. "There is a lot of inbound communications and we're trying to get to as many as we can." Fisher-Price is providing statements or referrals to the Web site, where there are pieces of communications available.

The media's handling of the situation, Andolina thinks, is "pretty fair - when we're able to get to them and give them the facts." Fisher-Price has been monitoring the coverage so that it is able to go to the AP and clarify misleading information and reiterate under-reported facts, such as that two-thirds of the 1.5 million products never reached retail.

The recalled products were manufactured through a contract vendor in China and include some very popular kid-friendly characters like Elmo and Dora the Explorer.

"It's really important to recognize how well Mattel has handled [communications]," says Julie Livingston, senior director of marketing communications for the Toy Industry Association (TIA). "They were transparent and got out there right away."

The TIA has been working for the CPSC for years to make sure that the standards in the US are strong, explains Joan Lawrence, VP of standards and regulatory affairs. "But these recalls force us to continue to evaluate that system and look for ways that we can improve upon the problem," she says.

The commission works with companies to issue recalls when it finds consumer goods that can be harmful, and the organization has a "pretty solid distribution list to consumers via e-mail," notes Scott Wolfson, deputy director for public affairs for the commission.
"But clearly with a recall of this size, we need the media to share that information broadly - and as many times as possible - with the general public."

"From the reaction we're getting here at the CPSC, it's an issue of consumer confidence," he continues. "Our obligation is not to put a company or industry at additional disadvantage in the aftermath of a recall; our job is to ensure that the recall works properly, and that the consumers are saved from further injuries."

Wolfson notes that the CPSC's challenge is not turning off a consumer to a recall or having them become so upset that they don't respond in the right way. A recall is structured so that there is a remedy for the consumer, but also a clear direction as to what they should do in their own home to protect the safety of their child.

Fisher-Price has been in business for 77 years, and "we've really earned that trust and reputation every day," says Andolina. "We really just have to continue to communicate with consumers so they understand what happened, and be honest with them and continue doing the job we've been doing."

As for the vendor in China, the investigation is still ongoing. The long-standing relationship - 15 years - makes it even more crucial that any such probes are done thoroughly to uncover what actually happened.

"Depending on [whether] it was an isolated incident or a systemic breakdown in standards, we have to go through that exploration to determine what the right step is to take," says Andolina.

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