It’s a company’s biggest nightmare.  A product recall.  What’s worse?  When it’s a children’s product, since emotions run especially high when the wellbeing of little ones is at risk.

Last Friday, baby food and toddler snack brand Plum Organics issued a voluntary recall of a range of their products.  I found out about it on Monday night, while browsing my Facebook news feed.  Comparatively, the well-known Tylenol recall in 1982 was initially communicated with Chicago police driving through the city announcing the warning over loudspeakers.  Indeed, the communication of product recalls has changed since the advent of social media.

In today’s social world, a product recall can present great risk to brands if done incorrectly.  However, as demonstrated by historical best practices from brands such as Tylenol and Lexus, a product recall can provide an excellent opportunity to connect with consumers in a meaningful way.  UK-based Eclipse Marketing found that almost three quarters of consumers will consider a repeat purchase following a recall if they had a good brand experience.  On the flipside, if a recall is badly executed and poorly communicated, 70% of customers would actively criticize a brand online and through word-of-mouth.

While Plum Organics has its fair share of critics regarding the handling of its recall, I was amazed by the support demonstrated on their Facebook page:  For example, one customer wrote, “I’ll still be loyal to your company. This happens to a lot of companies that sweep it under the rug and compromise their ingredients. Thank you for being so proactive and making a great product!”

Clearly Plum Organics is doing something right.  Now, what are some of the key elements that can help your brand emerge from a recall with similar consumer engagement?

  • Be prepared.  It’s not just for the Boy Scouts.  Every brand needs to have a plan in place for a potential recall.  This includes clearly outlining roles and responsibilities for your team and executing a mock drill at least annually.  Social media adds another element.  Anticipate appropriate use of each of your social properties and social media influencers that you may want to engage.  Consider developing a microsite that can serve as an information hub that will remain dark unless it is needed.  Finally, if you haven’t invested in tools to monitor the conversation about your brand, now is the time to do it.
  • Establish a bank of goodwill – before the recall.  Customers are far more forgiving when they have already established a relationship with your brand.  A well-executed social media strategy can build strong brand ambassadors for your organization who may even be quick to defend it in the case of a recall.  Note the Facebook response of one Plum Organics customer to another consumer’s criticism of the recall, “I’m pretty sure plum organics is not purposely trying to sicken our children. Geesh! Things happen and they are trying to rectify it now that they are aware. Love the plum products and to me they are the next best thing to homemade.”
  • Be proactive.  Don’t wait for regulatory agencies to get involved.  Or worse, for injury or death to result.  Consumers respect and continue to trust brands that respond promptly and make sweeping changes to prevent the problem from happening again.  In the 1982 recall of Tylenol, the brand pulled more than 31 million bottles valued at over $100 million from the shelves, and later reintroduced it with a new triple-seal technology to prevent tampering.  In the case of the Plum Organics recall, one consumer acknowledged the value of a voluntary versus a mandatory recall, “Plum, I have 80 pouches on my shelf. I have yet to check them, but thanks for doing the right thing and voluntarily recalling them. We do love your products and no one is perfect. Thanks for making this right and making easy, tasty, organic food for my little ones.”
  • Be honest (and apologetic).  You can’t change what happened, so start minimizing the damage.  Consumers will want honest answers to what happened, why it happened, who is affected, and how you’re making sure it never happens again.  They also want a heartfelt apology for their trouble, whether it is just a minor inconvenience or something that has actually sickened a member of their family.  Develop your answers quickly (you should have a good template based upon your mock recall drills) and share them consistently across all channels.  When Pfizer recalled its Lo/Ovral-28 birth control, they released a video of their Chief Medical Officer on YouTube that utilized key messages to address anticipated questions.
  • Respond in real time.  In times of crisis, it is especially important for brands to keep an open and clear dialogue with consumers.  Your recall plan should include identifying proper staffing to ensure that this happens – from your phone lines to social media.  Certainly, highly regulated industries (e.g. pharmaceuticals) have limitations on how they can communicate with consumers.  However, when possible, it’s important to demonstrate that your brand values its consumers enough to answer their questions in a timely manner.  Plum Organics has relied heavily on its key messages, but has answered rapidly.  In the first hours of the recall, answers were often within minutes.  The upside?  It’s possible to quickly correct inaccuracies and get a pulse on how messages are being received by consumers.

Social media provides brands with a unique opportunity to have a conversation with consumers.  Brands like Plum Organics that strike a strong connection, and do a good job preparing for a potential recall, are well-positioned to emerge from the crisis even stronger.