As critics, mostly moms, find new means to voice their concern surrounding claims of Pampers-induced skin irritation, Procter & Gamble is evolving its crisis communications approach. It involves transparency with the trade media, as well as catering to the emotion that initially fueled the ongoing crisis that has now escalated to a class action complaint.
“The unique thing about this was it was unexpected,” says Bryan McCleary, director of external relations for North America baby care at P&G. He explains that the team had to quickly redouble its crisis efforts to exhibit confidence in its recently launched Dry Max diaper product among moms. The team issued statements from outside pediatricians and dermatologists who have looked at the cases. It also continues to promote positive reactions by mommy bloggers, as well as personally respond to critics on sites like Facebook with a number to call for help.
Moms began complaining about diaper rash on Facebook earlier this year. However, the situation reached a critical point earlier this month, when Facebook critics began associating the product with the term “chemical burn.” At that point, news traveled from social media to the national news media, and P&G invited an Ad Age reporter to chronicle its crisis communications execution.
“The fly-on-the-wall dynamic can be a very positive one, particularly when you are 100% confident in what you're doing and the steps you're taking,” says McCleary. “I think it's another way to tell the story.”
Mark Senak, SVP and partner at Fleishman-Hillard, explains that the exposure of a brand's process is “emblematic of the fact that transparency has a lot of currency right now,” as social media has the power to speed up a crisis.
As such, companies must look for innovative ways to be transparent. In a case like Pampers, trade outlets seem to make sense, he noted.
“They're going to be a little more familiar with the nuance in what a company and entity is going through during a crisis and can speak to it as professional communicators,” he says.
Gene Grabowski, chair of the crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communication, attributes the brand's strategy to controlling its message about consumer accessibility and indirectly informing the national news media, rather than having a national news outlet report only on consumer outrage and its implications. Outlets including the Wall Street Journal have reported on the company's response to the issue, rather than just the complaints about the product.
“They probably wanted to show their own savvy to a community, or reporters, that would appreciate it,” he says. “I think it's smart and innovative and they should continue doing it.”
Still, he asserts that the most important communication is directly with consumers, and emotion plays a significant role in tempering a crisis message to an audience like moms.
When the story escalated, McCleary says the challenge remained consistent in that the team needed to be careful not to imply that moms weren't experiencing the irritation, while still reinforcing confidence in the product.
While P&G may not have refuted that the babies had irritated skin, Grabowski says one of the mistakes the company made was in responding to mothers' emotional claims with data to support its stance that the diapers didn't cause the irritations or discomfort.
“You cannot answer emotionally charged claims with data,” he said. “It won't work; consumers consider that to be insulting.”
With this level of emotion, says SafetyMom.com founder and former Weber Shandwick SVP Alison Rhodes, P&G needs to speak to moms from the perspective of a mom, in a way in which they can relate.
While the brand has moms tweeting @PampersVillage, Rhodes notes that the company could have done a better job of initially developing, and currently identifying, brand evangelists.
“You need to have those moms, who do feel these [diapers] are great for the baby, talking to the moms again,” he says.
McCleary says his team is trying to communicate its success stories, such as a Facebook group started by loyalists - I Love Pampers Dry Max - as well as sales that continue to exceed pre-crisis expectations.
He adds that the story is still playing out, and a recent class action complaint won't impact the brand's communications strategy. However, the team will continue to be transparent about its crisis response.
“Some attorneys may wish to profit from rumors and misinformation, but the key reassuring point is this product is completely safe,” he said. “We have every confidence we will prevail. We're trying to just keep the lines of communications open.”
The company is working with Pampers agency Paine PR.