Avoiding reputational harm when a product recall is required

May 17, 2017 by Jonathan Hemus

It’s hard to avoid stories about consumer product safety in the media.  And if your organisation makes or sells products, the potential for a product recall is an inevitable fact of life.

So why have organisations like Vauxhall and Whirlpool got it so wrong recently and how can you avoid a similar fate?

The most important thing to remember is that the safety of your customers must be your number one priority. More and more these days, the public expects companies to do what is right, not just what is required as Whirlpool has discovered to its cost.

Managing a product recall effectively

Crisis management planning is key to the successful management of the risks and challenges facing an organisation during a product safety incident. And the need for preparation is becoming even greater because of the time pressures imposed by social media.   Bad news travels fast on social media with images shared around the world at the speed of light.

Here are my tips on getting a product recall right:

Before the event:

  1. Scenario plan: consider how your organisation would respond to a product safety or quality issue through scenario planning.  Rehearse your thought process and determine what tools, resources and capabilities you would need.

  2. Develop a product recall plan: include clear, simple processes and checklists to make it as easy as possible to use under pressure. Ensure that all relevant teams and individuals - production, health & safety, quality control, communications, finance, legal and external agencies – are briefed on the plan and understand their responsibilities.

  3. Determine beforehand how you will communicate: map out the stakeholders with whom you would need to communicate and plan how you would reach them. Consider how you will deploy your website and social media channels: they are the first places consumers will turn to for information. Remember to plan across geographic boundaries and ensure that messages are consistent across your organisation. News of recalls are no longer restricted to one market as Mars discovered last year when mounting a product recall across 55 countries.

  4. Rehearse!  Make sure you run a crisis simulation for your crisis management team at least once a year to rehearse your response.

If an incident arises:

  1. Act quickly and decisively. You must put customer safety (and your reputation) ahead of short term cost.  Delaying will be far more costly in the long run, both financially and reputationally.

  2. Communicate pro-actively and keep your customers informed. Make sure that all touch points – your call centre, retail assistants and salesforce – are briefed on what to say.

  3. Act in a way that mirrors your values.  As Jeni Britton Bauer, owner of ice-cream empire Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in the US said when she had to initiate a major recall following a product contamination: “Values exist in the great times, but they also exist in the shitty times. If you abandon those during the worst times, then they’re not yours really.”

Product recalls should never come as a shock, and managed well, their impact on reputation should be almost imperceptible.  But fail to plan effectively and they can become a huge and long lasting business issue.