Keep calm in a crisis: how to handle product recalls

07/11/2021 16:51:30
From the Cadbury salmonella outbreak to the IKEA horse meat scandal, product recalls never cease to cause a stir – particularly where food is concerned.

Far from the reputational damage, food product recalls can cause untold harm to public health. In some cases, brands recover. Shrewd confectionery lovers may have noticed the timing between the abovementioned Cadbury scandal, and the arrival of the infamous drum-banging gorilla.

It was a bold move for the brand to put out such a light-hearted ad just months after it was forced to pay £1 million in fines. But it worked – sales shot up by 10%.

Sadly, not all brands have access to such huge marketing budgets – and face critical decisions should a product be recalled.

The dangers of product recalls

Manufacturing mistakes happen – but the outcomes can be devastating. These historical examples show the dangers of selling faulty products.

Financial ruin: Samsung’s misfire

In 2016, Samsung faced an incredible £4.3 billion loss after it was revealed that the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone posed a fire risk. The US Consumer Products Safety Commission recording 96 reports of batteries overheating and catching fire, just two months after its launch.

The company had no choice but to recall 2.5 million units – and put serious consideration into the forthcoming S8 device.

A time sink: Pfizer’s ‘life-threatening’ painkiller

The fallout of managing an arthritis painkiller with the potential to cause “life-threatening” skin reactions is bad enough. But for Pfizer, the trouble didn’t end there. While they were forced to recall their Bextra drug at a cost of $3.3 billion, they would continue to fight legal battles long into 2009.

With money and human resource spent in the courts, everything from share price to reputation can be affected – not to mention hours of productivity lost.

Staff lay-offs: May Blue Bell Creameries’ Listeria outbreak

In 2015, US-based May Blue Bell Creameries had to lay off 1,450 staff after it was revealed that its ice cream products had been linked to a Listeria monocytogenes outbreak.

With falling sales, the brand had no choice but to let go 37% of its employees and severely slow down its production. Likewise, the public health dangers of product recalls are very real. Ten people were diagnosed with the condition after consuming May Blue Bell Creameries’ ice cream, while the Cadbury’s salmonella outbreak affected 40 consumers.

How to respond to product recalls

There’s never a good time to face a product recall crisis, but you can control how you respond to it. At Partners, we have decades of experience dealing with crisis communications – and always advise our clients to follow the ‘4 As’: Admit, Apologise, Action, Amend.

  Read our 4 As of crisis communications blog here  

Be prepared

Ideally you will have a crisis communications strategy in place, outlining a clear communications process that can kick in, in the event of a recall. If you don't have a crisis plan in place: get one, and fast. Keep your spokesperson consistent and appropriate for the job – this doesn’t always have to be the CEO. It may be somebody with more in-depth product knowledge, or a staff member who handles other channels.

With this in mind, be prepared with statements for the media, social media, customers and other stakeholders.

Be sincere in your apology

Stating the obvious is permissible here. Tell your public that you are deeply sorry for the health concerns and anguish the product faults have caused. You cannot skim over the issue – if your business is at fault, failure to apologise will only cause further damage.

Be considerate

Don’t just tell people what you want to say; consider what they want to hear. They may want to know how many people have been affected, or what you’re doing to mitigate further problems. If you’re not transparent, you risk losing even more trust with the public.

Be human

An over-rehearsed, corporate apology will fall on deaf ears. Again, put yourself in others' shoes and be human in your response. Genuine remorse and compassion will shine through in anything your spokesperson says. "No comment” is rarely a good strategy.

Be methodical

Your communications strategy needs to be sincere and human, but it also needs to be planned. Don’t assume the media will handle the crisis for you. Keep lines of communication open. Have statements ready (and keep them brief or risk diluting the message). Be visible on social media to keep people updated, and be realistic with journalists about the timescales in which you can respond to requests for information.

How broader PR strategies can help

Nobody is ever truly prepared for a product recall crisis, but putting the steps in place now can make all the difference. How strong ar your replationships with journalists? How many stories are currently in the media showcasing the good work you do?

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, so don’t assume you’ll never face a crisis. And should the worst happen, know that there are options. Contact us to help you prepare a solid crisis communications strategy and plan. 

  Contact us for crisis comms support  
Keep calm in a crisis