Recalls intensify the need for efficient, transparent comms

When Graco issued a voluntary recall in January of more than 1 million of its strollers, the manufacturer was praised by members of the blogosphere for its prompt consumer outreach, which was conducted almost entirely through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Graco's corporate blog.

When Graco issued a voluntary recall in January of more than 1 million of its strollers, the manufacturer was praised by members of the blogosphere for its prompt consumer outreach, which was conducted almost entirely through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Graco's corporate blog.

"We took this situation very seriously and knew our customers would, too," says Kelly Voelker, brand manager of PR and social media for Graco. "Our team was immediately available to customers, answering questions and directing them to where to get detailed information on which strollers were affected by the recall."

Within hours of the recall announcement, Graco's communications team, already well-versed in social media, was not only posting information on the Web, but interacting with individual customers. That strategy earned kudos from mommy bloggers, some of which the Graco team had unknowingly helped through Twitter and Facebook within the first 24 hours of the crisis.

The response was an efficient, quick way to communicate a message during a media storm that threatened to gain momentum.

"Our mission was to clearly communicate with our customers, to answer as many personal questions as possible, and to make sure customers requiring further attention knew where to look. People really responded to that," Voelker says. "Particularly with an issue where parents were concerned about the safety of their child, it was important to display full transparency and honesty."

That engagement with consumers can sometimes fall apart in a recall situation. Corporations like Toyota and Johnson & Johnson have recently faced tough criticism over a failure to respond effectively during crises.

Chris Gidez, Hill & Knowlton's SVP/US director of risk management and crisis communications, says some corporations can take more time to react based on regulatory and financial issues.

"Many factors enter into when to issue a recall," he adds. "A question companies struggle with is, 'When is it too early - or too late - to call a recall?' Companies should err towards too early."

A timely response
Gidez says that not communicating quickly enough to consumers is an error corporations can make during a recall. Underestimating the bond of trust between consumer and brand, as well as not understanding when consumers make purchases based on emotional reasoning, can also hurt product reputation.

"It's important for companies to be as transparent as possible. If the company can't talk about the solution, they should at least be able to talk about the path to the solution," he says. "Toyota's recent recall in this situation is unique because it didn't have a fix in place when it announced the recall."

Jeff Taufield, senior partner at Kekst & Co., emphasizes how recalls should be handled swiftly and honestly when consumers are made sick by a product, such as in the case of J&J's January recall of hundreds of bottles of capsules. Among the recalled brands were Motrin, Benadryl, and Tylenol. J&J took 20 months to respond to consumer complaints of nausea after use of certain medicines.

"The quicker and more honestly a company acts, the faster a crisis will end, especially when consumers are sickened, maimed, or killed," he explains. "America is fixated on how companies handle crises, even more so when they're not handled well."

Taufield warns that minimizing or denying a problem can negatively impact a recall situation. He adds that ineffective communication and delayed reaction may lead the public to believe that company is acting dishonestly.

"Crisis communications is all about protecting the brand and reputation of products," he advises. "When faced with a recall, the most important thing a communicator must know is the facts. Speed and honesty are crucial.

"One of the most asked questions is, 'Who knew what and when?' The answer often drives how corporate regulators will respond," Taufield adds. "We've seen this over and over again with certain class action lawsuits, like in the case of Toyota."

Recall tool box Immediate engagement
Social media allows comms teams to quickly engage with consumers and directly answer questions

Leadership visibility
Executives should always be placed out in front. An apology from up top puts a face to the company

Speed and truthfulness
Speed and honesty are key. Without both, the public may distrust the sincerity of future communications

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