J&J's long been the model case study for product recalls that build, rather than destroy, consumer trust, thanks entirely to its handling of a 1982 episode where consumers died after taking tainted Tylenol pills. In a New York Times analysis of the fall from grace for this one-time role model, it's noted that, although J&J was among the first in its industry to publish a blog, J&J BTW, it waited until Monday of this week to make a post about the recall or the issue that prompted it 20 months ago.
Examining the blog in light of this incident, it's clear it wasn't truly seen as an open line of communication with consumers. The "about" page appears to discourage reporting of problems when it says the blog will "talk about Johnson & Johnson — what we are doing, how we are doing it and why...occasionally correcting any mistakes (not that that ever happens!) or simply providing more context." And since the time of the company's initial recall in November, 15 posts have almost exclusively covered the company's charitable and corporate responsibility topics: HIV/AIDS, Haiti's earthquake, swine flu, blood donors, climate change, even business ethics. There's no word until this week of the safety issues of its own products.
Given its own great track record in handling a consumer crisis and the opportunities offered by social media tools like blogs, reading about this incident made me wish those 15 blog posts had looked more like the 9 posts below. Some are time sensitive, some evergreen and intended to be repeated, but all of them would have made better use of the blog during such a crisis:
- "We're hearing about a problem..." The blog should report the first sign of trouble. "We've had word that some consumers are finding musty smells in Product X. If this has happened to you, please report it immediately to us at....", with contact and refund information.
- "We've reported this to authorities." Any time your product can be literally consumed by your customers, and there's a potential health issue, you should be embracing your federal regulators. After all, your customers pay for those services with their taxes--and better your company be the one to report the issue. Letting customers know that also helps close a critical reputation loop.
- "We've started an investigation. Can you help?" Start letting customers know immediately when you are investigating a problem, and ask them for clues and cues. Engaging consumers in this way, these days, is more possible than ever before--and more essential to your reputation in a crisis. Letting consumers help connect the dots can save you time and add to your responsiveness.
- "We're hearing about this problem in other products." If the problem seems to be spreading, spread the word--repeating for the new brands all the steps you took in blog posts for the first problem product.
- "We're voluntarily recalling all affected products." It's the err-on-the-side-of-caution aspects of the 1982 Tylenol case that struck the strongest chord with consumers and media alike. Waiting for authorities to order a recall has nowhere near the same impact.
- "With your help, we've identifed the problem(s) and are taking these actions." There's no point raising the issue if you won't close the loop by sharing specific steps your company is taking, along with a timeline for when the products will be back to a safe standard and credit for the consumers' help.
- Bring us your product questions: Rather than suggest problems don't happen, once a week, every week, a consumer products company should be asking for consumer questions about its products--how they're working, what's good or bad, problems with supply or delivery issues, and more. Posts like these should detail questions the company's willing to field, and encourage others beyond that list. That way, when problems occur, you're on the record as looking for information.
- Build on the playbook: Once a year, on the anniversary of the 1982 Tylenol recall, a post should look back at the tragedy and highlight the steps the company always takes whenever consumers report an issue. Even better: Thank the consumers who first brought the alert, and remind today's customers where and how they can share concerns--toll-free numbers, tweets, blog comments, and more.
- Reward the consumers who helped: Whether it's rebates, refunds, free products, a trip to headquarters or just featuring them on the blog and publicly thanking them, don't forget that rewarding consumers who sounded the alarm may be your best method of building a positive relationship from a negative incident. And sharing that information lets you take credit for it.