Product recalls are pro-active PR

image No company wants to issue a product recall – it is expensive, time-consuming and impacts on stakeholder confidence, with all the consequences that entails.  A recall is an admittance of a production problem and as such should be seen as a pro-active response, not a failure of the organisation’s public relations.

Sometimes a recall will follow incidences of injury or death and may indicate evidence of a lack of risk management or operational issues.  In such cases, there is clearly a need to understand the nature of the problem, what processes are being put in place to rectify it (long-term) and communicate clear, concise, accurate and timely information to affected publics – both directly and through third-parties such as the media.

But many other times, a recall is precautionary – a potential problem may have been identified and action taken to avoid any real danger occurring.  Indeed, most developed countries have robust measures in place to oversee the product recall protest.

However, the media – and individual politicians – frequently seem to fail to understand the difference between reactive and proactive issues management.  And, let’s be honest, responsibility for resolving any problem lies ultimately with the company (although public pressure can be useful in ensuring this is done).  Is that a message that PR practitioners can convey away from the heat of a crisis?

A recall process requires PR practitioners to have good relationships inside and outside the organisation – but let’s remember they are reliant on what information is available, and a trustworthy response to a problem being forthcoming.  In the case of BP, the technical solution has been a long-time coming – and this has impacted the ability of the PR team there to reassure and retain confidence. 

Those who’ve been quick to criticise the PR function at BP as if it alone created the ongoing oil leakage have presented themselves as having expertise in crisis management which would have immediately solved the company’s problems. 

But if it was that easy don’t they think that companies like BP which spend a fortune on PR people – including recruiting very senior practitioners and agencies would just follow the advice of a few online gurus. 

Likewise, the PR team at BP has been criticised for statements and behaviour of the company’s management.  As much as many portray PR as a strategic function, it is plain naive to expect total control of those who ultimately are more senior and are the key decision-makers.  I fail to believe that these senior execs have not undergone media training and otherwise received strategic advise – but if they are unwilling or incapable of really mastering corporate communications in its most public form, there’s only so much that PR advice can achieve.

My third issue with those who are quick to criticise other PR professionals is that they are simplistic in the opinions expressed.  They frequently take a modernist approach that presents “one way” of responding to a crisis.  There is a failure to recognise that although all crisis situations have some aspects in common – there are many, many differences that need to be considered to ensure an appropriate, not a formulaic response.

The online crisis communication gurus also take a worst case scenario in their predictions of what will happen as a result of a failure for any company to follow the recommendations they feel are essential.  But the reality is that most incidents are not as serious as the critics claim.  Yes, they are costly and can have an impact on reputation – but is that terminal?  Rarely – and in the cases where companies do go out of business, there are normally other underlying problems or a spiral of issues and declining confidence amongst all stakeholders.

Can PR stop that happening?  I doubt it – and it is time that PR commentators stop pretending that it can.  Presenting PR as some kind of corporate superhero in crisis management is a recipe for disaster.  We cannot turn pigs’ ears into silk purses, make the media write what we tell them, ensure Twitter chatter is immediately abated or miraculously turned in a positive direction or make everyone on Facebook love us.

Yes, we can mobilise our friends (inside/outside the organisation, online and offline) and seek to minimise the impact of our foes.  We can try to mitigate the problem and communicate wisely when we have something useful to say.

We can counsel senior executives – and guide them against making a faux pas.  But, it is their job – and that of other management colleagues – to put in place processes that avoid or solve operational problems.

PR practitioners should rightly highlight the importance of corporate reputation – but recognise that it is more likely to be bruised than fatally maimed provided there are operational solutions forthcoming.

And before those of us who comment on PR via blogs and other social media get on our high horses, we need to reflect a sense of proportion.

BP, Toyota and Johnson & Johnson – the most recent firms to go under the spotlight over corporate problems (product recalls in the case of the latter two) – are good companies.  Indeed, the irony is that J&J has been held aloft in the PR world for nearly 30 years as the torch-bearer of the “right way” to handle a crisis”.

That heroic position did not actually reflect the reality of the Tylenol case back in 1982 – no more than labelling it as a villain is an appropriate response today.  Perhaps the “fall from grace” will be an opportunity for PR practitioners to reflect the complex realities of crisis management and, ideally, research case studies without any agenda to promote simplistic solutions.


  1. Constructive criticism is always a better way to settle things out. A fair delivered post indeed.:)

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, very good post – I agree with most of it. One thing PRs could do better is to give risk a better reputation, making it more acceptable by positioning it as the price we pay for progress. The software people get away with taking great risks – risking our privacy, data and wealth and identity – without too much fuzz and without too much protest. They, of course, have the advantage of being able to provide online updates (security patches etc), as opposed to resorting to recalls. Somehow, we need to change the public mindset so that dramas stop turning into crises – as the Toyota recall did without just cause recently. In short, risk should stop being a dirty word and we should do more to put it in perspective. Don’t panic should be the message – no risk, no gain.

  3. Thanks. Paul – I agree that communicating risk is a key role for PR, but not only in terms of how to ensure the media, public, politicians, etc understand the need for risk. Even more important, I believe is a fundamental understanding of what risk means and when something is not an unreasonable risk. If you look at a recall, even if there has been an incident, it is normally something like one in a million. That is less than many risks we routinely take and don’t think of them as risky.

    Yet – when things are risky (driving too fast, eating junk food too much, etc) instead of moderating our own behaviour, “we” (media, public, activist groups etc) call for government or corporate intervention.

  4. andy green says:

    A curious detail about the BP incident is that they seemingly followed a text-book approach to a crisis: when in big doo-da you wheel out your top man to show you care, are genuinely committed and matching words with actions. In this case, it seems they would have been better wheeling out an American to act as the face of the company, possibly the CEO Tony Haywatd to show their commitment and then handing over to an ‘American face’.

    I fully agree – far too many PRO’s are taking a smug approach to taking easy potshots against people in the middle of fast-moving chaotic situations.
    Keep up the good work in promoting sensible appreciation of the realities.

  5. Hai Saad says:

    Thank you for any other magnificent post. The place else may just anybody get that kind of info in such an ideal approach of writing? I have a presentation subsequent week, and I am on the search for such information.

Comments are closed.