Guest Post from Dr. Matthew Seeger, Dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts at Wayne State University 

Product recalls are surprisingly common and require effective communication throughout the process. While the Takata airbag recall is the largest, every major auto company, domestic and foreign, has experienced a recall.  Product recalls are associated with almost every consumer product industry. Food recalls are routine and involve hundreds of tons of food products each year. The 2008 recall of products from Peanut Corporation of America eventually involved almost 4000 different products manufactured by some 350 companies using PCA ingredients. A number of high profile laptop battery recalls have plagued technology companies. Pharmaceutical products, household products, and a wide range of consumer products are recalled each year because of some previously undetected risk, defect or defect.

Why are recalls increasing?  Although each recall is unique, research suggests that many factors, large and small, can play a part. As technologies become more and more complex and supply chains become more and more extended, there is a greater probability that some flaw or failure will go unnoticed.  Parts may interact in unexpected ways or be influenced by environmental conditions.  Consumers may use the products in unintended ways.  In other cases, quality control systems and the culture of safety may be inadequate. Managers may be distracted by changes, budget problems, market expansion or other factors. And its simply hard to recognize when a small flaw becomes big problem.

What role does PR play in product recalls?  A recall involves three interrelated communication systems and all most work effectively for a recall to be successful.  

The first is a risk recognition and communication system. This allows problems (real and potential) to surface so that they can be addressed.  Too often, organizational cultures do not encourage members to bring their concerns forward.  The resulting silence can be devastating to an organization’s reputation when a small flaw becomes a big problem.

The second system involves notification. This can be a daunting task when good records have not been maintained or when a faulty component is used throughout an entire industry.  Organizations are increasingly turning to technology, including social media,  to track products and reach consumers in the case of recalls.

The third system involves image repair. The most significant damage that occurs from a recall is to the product brand and the organization’s reputation.  Quite simply, a recall that is handled poorly can undermine the basic trust that consumers have in the company and the brand.  Organizations should approach recalls by putting the needs of customers first, should accept responsibility when necessary and work to recall products as quickly as possible.

A well executed recall can actually bolster a company's reputation by demonstrating a commitment to quality and a respect for consumers as demonstrated by Maple Leaf Foods CEO, Michael McCain:  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIsN5AkJ1AI)

Regardless of the industry or the nature of the product, communication should be a central feature of any recall strategy.  Companies should plan for and anticipate recalls and when they happen, act quickly to tell their story and put the needs of customers first.

About the Author: Dr. Matthew Seeger is Dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts at Wayne State University and a Professor of Communication specializing in crisis communication. His books include Effective Crisis Communication, and Theorizing Crisis Communication.