Mars chocolate bar recall – how to limit reputational damage

Mars is facing one of its worst case scenarios – a contaminated product which may harm customers.  The company issued a worldwide recall of Mars, Snickers and Milky Way bars, after a customer found a piece of plastic inside a Snickers.  Inevitably this is a big story for the media in terms of reach (everyone who loves chocolate), scale (worldwide) and implications (will people/children stop eating the chocolate bars, will Mars see big losses in sales, the future of the brand/company).

It’s a classic media training scenario which I’ve used over the years to train spokespeople, press officers and communications teams.  With global sales of £24bn, much is at stake for this family-owned company.  Consumers put enormous trust in brands like Mars, so when a crisis of this magnitude hits, acting quickly to limit the reputational damage is essential.  Within hours of the story breaking, one Twitter user in Germany asked the question “#mars ist das neue #vw?” (“Is #mars the new #vw?”).  The two cases are very different.  VW’s recent recall of millions of diesel cars happened after dishonesty and fraud involving emissions.  The cover up, which spanned years, has done serious, lasting  damage to its reputation, which some observers believe may never fully recover.  Mars, on the other hand, have made a good start by issuing a voluntary product recall and are likely to have already limited long-term damage by acting openly and honestly.

Even so, it’s still early days in this chocolate bar crisis.  Several risks remain, not least the fact that the company has now revised its recall.  Initially Mars stated that 55 countries were affected but now admit they don’t actually know how many countries are involved and have therefore upgraded the recall to “global”.  Mars have made it clear they believe the piece of red plastic found in a Snickers was an “isolated” one and decided to withdraw all products manufactured at the same time in the same plant in the Netherlands as a precaution.  That changes the story, the implications and the media coverage hugely if more if more pieces of plastic are found.  The Guardian reported yesterday that a spokesperson from Mars had claimed that Britain was “hardly impacted” by the issue and the recall “related only to fun-size packs.”  If that’s true, then it may well be children who are at risk of swallowing a piece of plastic.  Were that to happen, consumer trust in the Mars brand would inevitably take an even bigger, and perhaps more enduring, hit.

So what’s the best way to deal with a crisis such as the Mars product recall?  Every organisation which sells any kind of product to general public should remember the ABC of handling a crisis:

Act quickly

Often organisations struggle to respond and quickly become overwhelmed because they have no strategy in place.  Every press office should have a rapid response plan and a crisis response team. Have your messages and your spokespeople ready for action, so you can get ahead of the story via press statements, interviews and social media. Put out a holding statement as quickly as possible and give the media regular updates.

Be available/visible

Get your spokespeople out there, putting your side of the story in print, on radio and TV.  You’ll want to reassure customers to retain their trust and to protect your reputation, not to mention the bottom line.  In a media storm, the people who are the face of your organisation are your best asset.  Getting your messages across and being able to project confidence, reassurance, credibility and empathy in a crisis are must-have skills which can be learned with quality media training

Communicate clearly

Have clear, concise, consistent messages.  These should include expressing concern/apology, what action you are taking and, lastly, giving perspective.  This way you can start to influence your media coverage and perhaps even the kind of headlines that will appear in the coming weeks and months.

Find out more about TNR’s Media training offering here>>

Bridgid Nzekwu is Head of Media Training at TNR, part of the Press Association

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