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Communication is key during product recall

Simulated product recalls often show that the technical actions of a recall are carried out well, but frequently teams fall down on communication. This can have big implications: at worst it can lead to a relatively small issue developing into a major crisis. Julia Johnson looks at the issue.

Imagine there’s a serious problem with your product. Complaint Tweets are snowballing, journalists are pressing for comment and the sales team want to know what to tell customers. If this happened in your business, would the technical manager be leading the recall team? And if so, is he or she equipped to handle communications effectively?    

The size of the company, be it large multi-national or small, family-owned business, probably determines whether the functional lead has the title of technical manager or technical director. But the fact remains that it is invariably this person who will be at the forefront of decision-making when a product problem arises.

This isn’t surprising; checking product specifications, running the traceability, beginning root cause analysis and so on are all required actions when there is a problem, so naturally they fall to the team responsible – Technical. With the technical head already at the heart of the response, this often leads, almost by default, to him or her also becoming the recall team leader.

Take a step back

On one level this seems a logical approach, but consideration should also be given to the fact that the technical lead has the most to do, and so is probably the least able to pause, take a step back and consider the whole panoply of stakeholders who need to know what is going on.  

In our work as business resilience advisers to the food industry we often put companies’ recall teams through simulated recalls. These are much more than traceability exercises, involving role-played inputs from a raft of stakeholders, from customers and consumers to suppliers and regulators. Typically the technical actions are carried out flawlessly, but frequently teams fall down on communication – often as a direct result of the team leader being the technical head who focuses entirely on functional actions.

This can have big implications. At best, poor communication can create duplication of effort and inconsistent messaging. At worst it can lead to a relatively small issue developing into a major crisis as social media posts are ignored, different stakeholders are given contradictory information and, in the absence of a proper brief, company employees take it upon themselves to speculate to third parties on the nature of the problem.

No single answer

What is the solution? As is often the case, there is probably no single answer which will apply universally. Rather, it is a case of considering what will work best for each organization. A good starting point is to review the recall procedure to identify gaps.

Reassessing the suitability of the recall team leader role is another sensible step. Consider whether the person in that role is sufficiently dynamic to lead a recall team, whether they can make decisions under pressure and if they are able to delegate (and have a team to delegate to). Think about the actions which will need to be undertaken if there is a product issue, and who will have the most, and the least, actions falling to them. In some companies it is the finance function that takes on the leadership role, as it tends to have least to do during the urgent action phase of a product issue.

Whichever function is nominated as recall team leader, it is important that he or she receives training on the communications requirements that a major product issue necessitates. As a minimum, such training should cover: internal communications, external communications and, as a sub-set of the latter, social and traditional media.

Developing a communications plan

A communications plan, developed for each product issue but working to a template devised before the problem strikes, can help steer this process. Such a plan sets out all the stakeholders with a potential interest in the issue, the information they need to know in an agreed form of words, who will be informing them, how and by when. Once this is in place, the required internal and external communications become clearer.

Efficient internal communication is vital to ensure that different functions – from the sales team to the security gate – receive the correct information, as appropriate to their need, and in a timely manner. Despite best intentions, functions often operate in ‘silos’ and poor internal communication can lead to missed information, omitted actions, duplication of effort and inconsistent messaging.

Similarly, good external communication is critical to keep customers, regulators, suppliers and consumers happy. Some of this is straightforward, but in our experience, technical heads tend to be most out of their comfort zone when it comes to managing social media.

Monitoring social media

At the outset of a serious product issue, it is important for the recall team to know what is being said about their company and their brand on digital channels. Even own-label suppliers need to have an overview of the situation so they can liaise knowledgably with their retail customer. Technical heads should know they need to brief the communications team to undertake this monitoring, or if the business is too small to have a specialised communications team, have a colleague, or outside agency, briefed to undertake it. Consumer complaints frequently arise first on social media and any delay in monitoring can lead to further complaints being missed.

Companies should have a crisis social media strategy prepared, then turn to it during a live product issue. Mid-recall is not the time to launch on Twitter for the first time!

Similarly, media enquiries left unanswered can generate negative coverage. A holding statement or product recall release might be required, so again this should be written into the recall plan.

These sorts of communications services are sometimes included as part of specialised product recall insurance.

Once an organization is confident that the best person for the job is leading the team and has the resources in place to facilitate good communication, a test should be held to check everything works smoothly. This must go beyond a traceability exercise to fulfil BRC requirements and there should be an emphasis on communication in any simulation.

Communication is as fundamental to the effective handling of a product issue as swift and accurate traceability. It is essential that technical heads recognise this and, if they feel their knowledge is lacking, find a way to plug the gaps before they are asked to lead the recall team.

The author

Julia Johnson is an Associate Partner in the Business Resilience practice at Instinctif Partners. To explore your recall readiness visit

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