The outcome of a recall is often determined within the first two days the crisis hits, says Gene Grabowski, a partner at Washington, DC-based kglobal, who has handled over 150 recalls, including Blue Bell Creameries’ recent ice cream recall. Crisis experts have to move at lightening speed to respond and gain control of the narrative.
The phone rings and a company is poised to announce a product recall and wants to bring in an external crisis communications expert for assistance.
The PR expert’s team is monitoring traditional news media, social, and digital media. The client is provided with a compilation of news clips, a summary of what people are saying, why it is important, and what the next steps should be.
The decision-making team meets and devises a plan. Aside from an external crisis comms expert, the A-team is comprised of the CEO, internal comms head, tech expert, marketing manager, and an external attorney experienced in the regulatory processes involved in a recall.
The strategy is executed and internal comms is top of the list. This way, any external messages the company is sending out are not undermined by what staffers may say to their friends, family, or news reporters, says Grabowski. By doing this, the organization takes control of the narrative before any false details are leaked to the media.
Ensure a spokesperson is at the ready as a public announcement must go out as quickly as possible. This should be made via press release and sent out through a news distribution service such as PR Newswire.
"Because there are so many recalls today, news organizations no longer guarantee they will publish your announcement," adds Grabowski. "So to be sure you are complying with disclosure regulations, you want to issue a news release that is distributed as widely as possible."
It should include all the information the company has available, recall instructions for consumers, and a list of corrective steps the company is taking. Include a consumer helpline number in the release. Companies such as Stericycle, which handles thousands of recalls in the US each year, can have a helpline set up within 90 minutes. The crisis expert provides the helpline with a script.
Reach out to retailers that carry the product. The marketing or sales team members who have responsibility for retailer relationships should send a prepared email explaining the recall and make personal phone calls to their customers.
"Retailers need answers to questions they get from consumers at the checkout counter," explains Grabowski.
Provide the public with as many updates as possible as the situation changes. One way to do this is to provide a button or a section on the homepage of the company’s website, leading to a special Web page or microsite about the recall.
On that page, include any releases about the recall, a Q&A about the situation, a list of products affected, and how to return or dispose of them.
Constant media monitoring should be in effect, so the company can respond in real time to complaints or comments that matter.
Produce a two-minute video message expressing concern, empathy for anyone harmed, and an explanation of what the company is doing. Include an apology for the inconvenience of the situation. Post it to the company’s micro-site and social media pages.
"A video has a warmer touch than a written release and is a better way to convey emotion," notes Grabowski.
Investigators confirm the cause of the recall. The company must quickly disclose what steps it is taking to ensure this does not happen again.
"Once an organization knows the cause of the problem, consumer anxiety is greatly reduced," says Grabowski. From this point on, the focus is on reassuring consumers and winning back trust.
The Right Message
Because Blue Bell Creameries’ ice cream was linked to 10 illnesses and three deaths, the company’s CEO Paul Kruse was tapped to apologize via video. But the CEO does not always need to be the face of a company during a crisis.
"If it is a toy, you might have a safety expert at the company, who is also a parent, explain the situation via video," says Grabowski, who once helped to handle toy recalls due to lead paint in 2007 (pic below).