Product recall PR planning for food and beverage manufacturers

Written by Paul Tustin, client director, Freshfield.

Product recalls can be a PR nightmare for food and beverage manufacturers if they are not managed well.  

They  can come in different forms for different reasons, whether the return of a product because of a safety threat for the consumer or for other reasons which may put the company at risk of legal action.  

The financial cost alone can be punishing as Mars Chocolate found out in 2018 when it recalled its Mars and Snickers bars across 55 countries because a piece of plastic was found in one of its bars in Germany.  

Reputation is the most serious concern 

Product recall insurers Lockton estimates that about 80 per cent of the total costs are incurred long after the recall has been dealt with, particularly reputational damage linked to consumer confidence.  

The complex nature of long supply chains and increasing regulatory scrutiny in the food and beverage industry means the risk of such negative impact is high for manufacturers.  

Assessing the risk and preparing for such a crisis will help to limit the effects and reputational damage for the company. 

Crisis PR planning tips 

Planning is at the heart of a robust crisis and issues PR structure and here are some key preparation points:  

  • Before you create a plan, we would advise that you assess the reputational risk and then conduct an audit of current preparedness. This will help to clarify what is in place, any gaps and what needs to be done internally.  
  • Create a defined team who would handle your product recall crisis PR, involving key officers across strategic and operational areas of the business as well as relevant external personnel and agencies. Decide on spokespeople for the situation at corporate and operational level and assess if they are media-trained. As part of their role, a member of the team should be made responsible for internal communications to ensure employees are kept up to date as the product recall progresses. 
  • Prepare a series of draft product recall notices. Establish a tone and style for your notices and consider how they may be perceived. Also ensure you have quick access to any health and safety accreditations that evidence your commitment to safe, responsible and industry leading standards. Reflect actions wherever possible to show that you are taking the situation seriously. Stakeholders and consumers are much more likely to forgive a brand which is seen to be honest with an apology if appropriate. 
  • Scope a positioning paper which charts the key messages of the organisation along with the processes and procedures that are in place for a recall. This is a starting point for recall notices, statements for the media and announcements to the supply chain should they be needed. They will provide a strong reference point for those handling the situation.   
  • Create a clear channel strategy. Scope out all the available channels and assign responsibility for management of them. If your brand has several websites and social media channels, it’s a huge job to manage and the 24/7 nature of them can overwhelm any organisation. Also work out a policy on how you will respond to online comments and engagement. 
  • Make sure your database of all contacts is up to date including customers, suppliers, local public health bodies, regulatory bodies, media contacts and other partners. The last thing you need in a crisis is to find out a journalist has moved on or your contact details are out of date. 
  • Test the plan. Create some worst-case scenarios and perform a mock crisis. This will help test your plan and identify any gaps or weaknesses. Each member of the team should be tested in their role and what they will need to do so they are clear about their own responsibility and ready for the challenge. 

Review and assess the learnings 

If the event of a crisis, your response should be reviewed as a team to examine what worked and any learnings for the next crisis or product recall.  

This will enable the plan to be refreshed and for individual members of the team to look at their own role and what they learned from the experience. Indeed, the crisis plan for product recalls should be regularly reviewed and maintained rather than left on file and forgotten about. 

If managed well, the downside of a recall can be limited and give you the best chance to restore trust amongst key stakeholders, whilst demonstrating that the company can manage its affairs responsibly. 

Freshfield’s crisis and issues PR specialists have decades of experience of helping organisations and their leaders plan for and manage crises. Please contact Paul Tustin if you would like to discuss a project.   

Written by Paul Tustin, at Freshfield

For more information, please contact Paul or the Freshfield team on 01772 888400.

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