Keep calm and carry on through a product recall

At the recent BFFF marketing seminar Mintel revealed that between 2001 and 2011 there had been 2,500 documented food recalls around the world. That’s over two per month. These recalls can cause media and consumer panic resulting in significant damage to a brand and the bottom line.

Product recalls are the stuff of food industry nightmares. They can include problems with ingredients such as Suddan Red, production contamination as happened to Perrier Water or product tampering which has affected numerous brands. Other problem areas for food companies are scare campaigns from activists on issues such as GM, or events that are totally beyond your control like mad cow disease, bird flu and the petrol tanker strike. Whatever the issue, you can be sure that at some stage nearly all food and drink businesses will have a crisis to deal with.
Businesses face some tough decisions when they realise a product or service is faulty. Do they try and fix it without drawing it to the attention of the press, or do they hold their hands-up and admit a problem?

One of the most recent high profile cases was the decision by Britivic to recall its Fruit Shoot brand after a six-year old boy in Colchester was found by his mother, choking on a detached part of a newly-introduced non-spill cap known as the Magicap.

This is the first rule of crisis communications – stay in control.

Whilst other businesses may have dismissed the issue as a one-off, Britvic understood that the Fruit Shoot brand could be seriously damaged if parents, fearing their kids could choke, stopped buying the drink. The company acted quickly and recalled the drink, a decision which it has been estimated cost them £25 million.

By acting quickly Britvic set the agenda and tone of online comment and media coverage.

The second rule is that nowadays there is nowhere to hide.

The rise of the internet and social media means that brands can no longer hide if they have a problem.

Had Britvic not withdrawn Fruit Shoot, then you can guarantee that the six-year-old boy’s mum or some of her friends would soon have been tweeting and blogging about the problem cap. Within a few days the story would have been all over the internet and then in the press.

Again, by acting quickly Britvic was able to ensure that internet chatter and press coverage was about the positive action they were taking to solve the problem – reassuring the parents of other kids.

Britvic has continued to manage the issue well with information on its website, a customer helpline and regular media updates. What this has demonstrated is good planning. All companies should have a crisis management procedure that is endorsed and understood by the board, regularly updated and ready to swing into action.

This is especially the case for any company in the food, drink and packaging industries. At Pelican PR we are often surprised at how many businesses are totally unprepared for potential problems.

When a crisis hits it’s too late to plan.

To create a plan you first of all need to identify what could go wrong. Do you have full control of your supply chain? How good are your employee relations? How rigorous are your production processes? Identify any action you can take to improve them. You also need to ask the what if questions. How will the business cope if a factory burns down, an employee is killed or a supplier lets you down? Also look at the wider world, what are hot issues with activists and the media – palm oil, salt reduction, nutrition battery farming – where do you stand and how would your position play with customers and the media?

Once you’ve asked the questions, you can start defining your position, planning responses to different scenarios and equipping yourself to deal with a crisis. This involves writing your crisis plan, creating a clear chain of command, identifying and training your media spokespeople and most importantly your post-crisis strategy, what will you do to repair any damage?

With your plan in place you can then see how it performs with crisis drills. You also need to keep it up to date as issues change and the unexpected happens. It’s important to keep an eye on consumer trends and market developments, the next crisis could be easily avoided with some early planning.

Let’s hope you never have the need to use your plan but should you do so it will give your business the structure and confidence to deal with a crisis in a professional way. As the old adage goes: failing to plan is planning to fail.

Pelican Communications are specialists in the environmentfood and drinkoutdoor and leisure and packaging sectors and offer a range of services such as media relations, brand management, event management and people developmentContact us for marketing and communications expertise.