Monday, February 20, 2012

Why Good PR Matters to Allergic and Atopic People

I am writing this with my PR cap on. Despite the years of research and evidence on the subject, some companies just don't understand good crisis communications. So, what is good crisis communications? Essentially, it's having a strategic communications plan to deal with any possible problem (even ones you can't imagine) that may arise in the future. While the specifics vary, the basics work in every situation.

1. Accept responsibility and be honest
2. Apologize (and mean it)
3. Be quick and accurate in your response

There is certainly much more to it than that, but again, those are the basics. I think the fourth is that if at all possible, avoid the crisis in the first place. Good crisis communications matter for every company and it is especially crucial for companies who gear their products or services to those with health conditions - like food allergies or eczema - that can be exacerbated when something goes wrong in their product line.

Recently there have been quite a few companies who have had issues with their product lines or with not meeting customer expectations in some fashion - Maple Leaf Foods, Aveeno, Zero8, Enjoy Life and Sweets From the Earth. However, they've all dealt with their issues a bit differently. Maple Leaf Food and Aveeno have unfortunately taken a much more subdued approach to serious issues, while Zero8, Enjoy Life and Sweets From the Earth have acknowledged the severity of the problems accordingly and as a result have certainly proven that they take their devotion to their customers seriously.

As a little history lesson, the Tylenol case is a benchmark for amazing crisis communications. In the 1980s, a still unidentified individual tampered with their product, lacing capsules with cyanide. There were many deaths attributed to the product tampering. As a result, Tylenol implemented industry-changing procedures and technologies, including caplets and tamper-proof seals. They also cooperated fully with all law-enforcement personnel and participated in a complete recall of their product. Most importantly, even though they were not responsible for the tampering, they accepted full responsibility and took whatever measures possible to ensure the product became safe. It's hard to imagine Tylenol as anything but a trusted brand nowadays.

More recent examples of good PR are Enjoy Life Food's recent reaction to the corn issue and though it's getting a little old as a case study, Nestle's response to parents of children with peanut allergies. In both circumstances, both companies faced a backlash from parents regarding potential cross-contamination to an allergen. Nestle faced a backlash from parents when they announced a previously nut-free production facility was to be transitioned to produce chocolate products which did contain nuts. While the initial response was apologetic, the company refused to make any changes. However, realizing that more than money was at stake (Nestle experienced a financial loss in changing their position), Nestle decided to keep the production plant peanut-free.

Currently Enjoy Life is experiencing backlash from parents for various reasons, all involving the potential inclusion of corn in some of their products, mostly due to the potential of cross-contamination. Some of this has been due to unclear and misleading labels on third-party sites and incomplete labelling on Enjoy Life's part. For a full description, please read the most recent statement by Scott Mandell, CEO and Founder of Enjoy Life Foods.

However, there is no doubt that none of this was done with any intention of misleading the public, since Enjoy Life is dedicated to providing a trusted product free of the top eight allergens. It would be unlikely that they would intentionally jeopardize that position by purposely misleading customers on product contents which have the potential to harm children - their primary end customer. Could their packaging have been clearer? It seems so. However, are they making amends, being honest, taking responsibility and doing everything possible to correct the situation? I believe they are. This is a great example of company transparency.

Zero8 and Sweets From the Earth have a more direct correlation to the Tylenol case study. Their products were contaminated through no fault of their own, though obviously these weren't cases of tampering. However, Zero8 (gluten contamination) and Sweets From the Earth (dairy contamination) accepted the severity and temporarily ceased production of frozen foods in the case of Zero8 and in the case of Sweets from the Earth, carried out a recall. Both companies made public statements through their websites and social media. The amount of transparency demonstrated by these companies is exactly what a consumer should hope to see from companies.

Enter Aveeno and Maple Leaf. The two stories are similar to each other in that the responses are inadequate, yet one company seems to have gone out of their way to mislead while the other is experiencing a crisis not necessarily of their own making.

A batch of Aveeno Baby Calming Comfort Lotion was found to be contaminated with Staphylococci, a fairly innocuous bacteria which is present on skin - innocuous unless you have atopic dermatitis. In that case, the fallout can be mild to severe. The link to the recall on Aveeno's US site (this is a localized contamination) reveals their recommendations regarding potential adverse affects. I have not included the entire release in the interests of keeping this as short as possible and I have highlighted the parts with which I take issue in yellow. 

JANUARY 27, 2012 
  1. Q: Why are you recalling these products?
    Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, Inc. is initiating this retail-level recall as a precautionary measure after post release testing of a product sample by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That test indicated that one lot exceeded the specifications for common bacteria, though extensive testing by an independent laboratory afterward did not show that specifications were exceeded. However, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, Inc. has voluntarily initiated this recall out of an abundance of caution. This action is not being undertaken on the basis of adverse events and the potential for adverse health effects is remote...
  2. Q: Can consumers continue to use their AVEENO® Baby Calming Comfort® Lotion?
    A: Consumers do not need to take action and the potential for adverse health effects is remote.
    Of course, anyone who has concerns or is uncomfortable using the product may discontinue use and call our Consumer Call Center...
  3. Q: Are there health effects associated with the reason for this recall?
    This action is not being undertaken on the basis of adverse events and the potential for adverse health events is remote. No action is required by consumers; however, if consumers have questions or would like a refund, they should call our Consumer Call Center...
  4. Q: Should consumers return this product?
    Consumers do not need to take action and the potential for adverse health effects is remote. However, if consumers have questions or would like a refund, they should call our Consumer Call Center...
  5. Q: Will you provide consumers with a refund?
    Yes, we will offer consumers a refund. Consumers do not need to take action and the potential for adverse health effects is remote. However, anyone who has concerns or is uncomfortable using the product may discontinue use and call our Consumer Call Center...
Key messages are great, but we all remember situations where someone on the news who is clearly uncomfortable with the media seems to repeat one or two things every time he or she is asked a question by a reporter. It comes off as too rehearsed and therefore, not genuine. The fact is that for the regular population, adverse health effects are certainly remote. However, not so for any child with atopic dermatitis. Aveeno is a trusted name when it comes to eczema skin care; so, the absolute lack of any reference to this condition is not just an oversight. It's an omission.

When it comes to Maple Leaf Foods, I have to say I'm shocked that they've actually purposely mislead the public. I honestly hope to see an explanation that proves the contrary, especially considering their PR regarding listeria deaths in Canada, not that long ago, was viewed as brilliant crisis communications. They did everything right. They shut down their plant to clean it properly and then implemented proper procedures to ensure that it didn't happen again. Their spokesperson, CEO Michael McCain, was sympathetic and accepted responsibility.

So, the Natural Selections meats with "celery extract" that is bio-chemically identical to nitrites is not a good example of transparency. A lot of people have spent extra money to purchase this product for the sole fact that the ingredient list is small, pronounceable and nitrite-free. They thought it was "natural". They accepted a high sodium content, believing that salt was the preservative. Instead, Marketplace, CBC's consumer magazine show, did some research and revealed the truth. Maple Leaf's response?

"We care deeply about the integrity of the products that we produce and the labelling is accurate," said Randy Huffman, chief product safety officer with Maple Leaf Foods. - "Maple Leaf Foods changes misleading product labels", 02 February 2012,

According to Marketplace, Maple Leaf will be changing their labels to reflect the fact that the products do contain nitrite, but they haven't accepted any responsibility for what is now seen as the purposeful misleading of the public to capitalize on the public's appetite for natural products.

I like to keep track of these things for various reasons. It tells me a lot about a company. While I can't use Aveeno products due to allergies, I now wonder about their production methods since they haven't released any information about how the contamination occurred and they haven't accepted full responsibility or made proper statements for part of their target market, infants with atopic dermatitis. Maple Leaf has misjudged their public this time. Personally, this has made me question the integrity of their business practices and their products. A food company must always be trustworthy.

The lesson for anyone with allergic or atopic conditions is to pay attention to the companies you frequent. Understand their practices and make sure you are comfortable with them. Should a crisis occur, that is often the best time to see what a company is truly made of. If they are sympathetic and take responsibility, that's a company you want to give your business to. If they lack transparency and try to avoid the issue and responsibility, you might want to consider taking your business elsewhere. Reward those who respect their customers.


  1. Very interesting post, Atopic Girl.

    I once pinged Aveeno to ask whether they'd done any clinical trials of their Eczema Therapy line. I got the big stonewall from J&J, written in exactly the kind of language you quote. It gave me the impression that J&J was a huge impersonal corporation (which it is) interested in making profit and protecting its liability rather than actually helping out customers or providing any kind of benefit to society. That doesn't make them the kind of company I want to buy from--I don't trust their products, and I don't get any caring feeling.

    1. You've pinpointed exactly what it is that makes me want to deal with a company. I can only trust a company that's genuine. The way a company shows that it's genuine is by being caring. I can't trust a company that isn't genuinely interested in the welfare of its customers.

  2. J&J's behavior contrasts with my experience with many other companies who have put a real live human being on the phone or email or chat service. It's a complex situation--sometimes that person sympathizes with my situation but doesn't have the authority to do anything useful. But I feel they're doing their best. That's frustrating, but it's better than dealing with a robot or a spokesperson who can only parrot answers because the company lawyers are calling the shots.