How Social Media Could Change Product Recalls

Recalls (and unfortunately) lawsuits are inevitable. But taking control and mitigating risk is easier than ever before. We took 5 poorly-managed product recalls and looked at what could have happened if today's online strategies were applied.

Product recalls are more common than most consumers think. Across several industries there can be anywhere from a dozen to a hundred of recalls in one day – from small parts breaking in a manufacturing plant to spoiled medicine accidentally making it on the shelves at stores. Despite how common product recalls are, the way in which companies address recalls from a social media perspective is generally slow and counter-intuitive to the recall process itself since many recalls are company initiated to spread safety and prevent harm. See 5 Tips for Brands to Handle Recalls.

The average consumer finds recalls to be scary, a waste of time and perhaps most importantly, that product information is not being shared properly. The incentive to both monitor recall information and submit product information is very low for the consumer. When first-hand disruption occurs (fault of recalled item that causes harm) the kneejerk reaction is ambivalence or “take ’em to the cleaners” aka class action lawsuit. Companies, despite having highlighted a recall, are often seen as the bad guys by consumers.

The relationship between companies and consumers then becomes dueling and not comprehensive – and a bad client relationship begins to brew. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Power to the People?

With the ease and availability of social media outlets, consumers end up spreading and sharing information with each other before companies can even meet to decide on a “corporate strategy.” Said corporate strategy soon becomes outdated by angry Tweets on the interwebs or bloggers wondering why they are the first to ‘uncover’ a product issue. And some, like this senator in Kentucky, think the safety of consumers is handled better in the hands of private organizations like Consumers Union (which publishes ConsumerReports). The government has tried its best to keep a firm grip on product safety by creating tougher mandates through the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act which will hold companies to higher standards in product recalls, including monitoring the effectiveness of recall processes.

Safety is serious stuff but doesn’t have to be unpleasant.

Things to Remember as a Consumer:

1) Companies do care about your well being

2) Mistakes happen

3) Recalls are a good thing

4) Companies Don’t Make Evil

Production is equipped for faster speeds than ever before – even the most efficient and proactive company might catch an issue quickly through internal inspection and quality control. But thousands of units could have already shipped out in the meantime. Are there ways to improve quality control? Yes, and companies are on it. What could companies do today to optimize the opportunity they have to dialog with customers about their recalled products?

To demonstrate resources available to companies, we took 5 poorly-managed product recalls in the past 40 years and looked at what could have happened if today’s online strategies were applied:

1) Ford Pinto (1978)

Despite having a massive automobile recall during the ’70s, this model of car could have avoided its multiple awards for “Worst Car” and possibly large punitive damages in court if it was properly managed.


The bad: Word would have spread faster about the tank issue and more plaintiffs would have joined the class action suits.

The good: Ford could have turned the tables, developing a marketing campaign incentivizing consumers to get updated parts at dealerships, filling out surveys which would have aided market research and customer retention.

2) Graco High Chairs (2010)

Graco recalled over 3 million strollers and high chairs in one year over fingertip lacerations and other limb-risking issues. A relatively recent recall here are some tips on how this recall could have been better managed:


The bad: Mom blogging networks are very connected. Word-of-mouth spread bad reviews, which in turn led to potential lost sales, which are always hard to recover from.

The good: From product support groups, email newsletters, or even tweeting back to moms, Graco could combat the recall in a variety of ways. Moms love to chat with each other and are habitual shoppers – if a company can connect with that, it’s a win-win for everyone.

3) Tylenol (2010)

Dirty and damaged plants in Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico started the wave of recalls in 2010 with Johnson and Johnson’s largest recall to date. A large variety of products were affected, from Rolaids to children’s Tylenol.


The bad: Since multiple products and brands are being recalled, the quantity and scale of the recalls have dissolved product integrity. Formerly known as the pinnacle for safety, concerned parents aren’t sure if Tylenol is safe for their children. Or each other.

The good: High shelf lives of the millions of units recalled mean the opportunity to getting spoiled products out of a household is high. Tylenol could monitor Facebook and Twitter traffic, setting up specific pages and accounts that generate coupons and interact with concerned consumers. Trust will have to be earned again – cleaning up the plants and enacting strict safety regulations with regular monitoring is necessary. Regularly publishing videos taking consumers on a tour of production facilities, showing how safety is again, number one at J&J could begin to re-build trust and convince consumers to purchase J&J products.

4)Firestone Tires (2000)

Known for massive “blowouts,” the tire brand battled against a recall of 14MM units across different product lines back in 2010. Frightened consumers knew picking tires was no longer a simple process.

The bad: Tire buying now seems more complicated than ever.

The good: Free tire check ups at retailers could be set up, as well as discounts for exchanged tires or products. When it comes to serious safety concerns, a transparent campaign is always appreciated by consumers.

5)Peanut butter recalls (2009)

Food-related recalls are tricky. Most items are consumed quickly, which means getting information to the consumer as soon as possible is even more important. Almost 4,000 other foods were affected by the recall due to Salmonella contamination, as well as candies, ice creams and foods made with peanut butter.

The bad: Notification needs to be almost instantaneous.

The good: Since peanut butter is often purchased with bread, milk, and jelly, coupons or partnerships with these products and brands could help reach consumers likely to consume peanut butter and even introduce different brands to otherwise content shoppers.

From a consumer perspective, we should be prepared for more recalls with higher volumnes than before. As a manufacturer, recalls are an opportunity to take an unfortunate experience and turn it into a way to engage consumers, determine shopping habits, and understand what they look for in your brand.

Recalls (and unfortunately) lawsuits are inevitable. But taking control and mitigating risk is easier than ever before with the help of social media.

[Ellie Cachette is the Founder of ConsumerBell, a service that helps companies manage their online presence during recalls and stay engaged with consumers. Cachette covers consumer web and entrepreneurship and can be found on twitter @ecachette or reached via email ellie (at) consumerbell (dot) com]