‘Toxic Waste’ Gum Recall Leaves Bad Taste

by PR Coach on April 4, 2011

Toxic Waste bubblegum recall efforts fall short

This week, a curious product recall caught my eye. This “toxic” bubblegum recall is a real lesson in communications that didn’t go far enough.

The product is called “Toxic Waste® Short Circuits™ Bubble Gum.” It’s marketed on its website as “hazardously sour candy.”

The gum is imported from Pakistan and distributed in the US by Candy Dynamics of Indianapolis though it appears to be UK headquartered.

Unfortunately, and ironically for Toxic Waste bubblegum, recent tests by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), showed one product lot with elevated levels of lead which can potentially cause health problems for infants, small children and pregnant women.

The gum was distributed to retailers across the US, by mail order and also sold in limited quantities in Canada and Switzerland. The company sent recall notices to its direct customers and asked consumers to call for more information.

The company’s news release on the FDA website was a cookie-cutter release. Typical of many less-than-effective product recall news releases, it offered no company attribution, no quotes and no sincere apology, personally-expressed by a senior official.

A contact person, whose position with the company was not identified, was listed with a telephone number for questions from consumers, media and other interested parties. Consumers were directed to “telephone the company for information on the destruction of the product.” A product photo was provided.

No illnesses were reported and no other products affected. But, given the young age of typical bubblegum buyers, this company’s recall communications were a bust in my opinion.

Lead in Products Have Consumers Concerned

Remember the last several year’s news reports about lead paint on children’s toys and other product contamination from several foreign manufacturers? You’d have thought every extra precaution and care in communication would be taken here.

In addition to the shortcomings of the news release, it appears that the company made no other efforts to reach consumers about the recall. The consumer website had no information about the product recall or any indication of potential product problems. It was simply ignored.

Its Twitter account @ToxicWasteSour was virtually inactive. It had no tweets in 2011, only four posts in 2010 in October, and just 10 sporadically in 2009. No mention of the product recall was made in 2011 and it had only 82 followers and followed 73.

On Facebook, Toxic Waste has a visible marketing presence. It appeals to a young consumer and features lots of promotional chatter but activity is sporadic. It’s hard to believe there’s no mention of the product recall at all on its Facebook page either.

Mentioning any product recall on Twitter and Facebook must be handled very delicately. In this case, there’s no denying the product had tested positive for lead. It is not responsible to leave consumers in the dark.

Candy Dynamics only needed to briefly mention it on Twitter and Facebook and direct consumers to an effective and friendly website page with a sincere apology and reassurance no other product is affected.

So How Could the Company Communicate the Recall More Effectively?

I’ve recently looked at companies like cookie maker Liz Lovely who communicated effectively in a recent product recall and others like Tropical Fruit and Nuts and Bravo Farms who didn’t go far enough.

Here are several easy things Candy Dynamics could easily have done better:

  • Its news release should add the title of the contact and their affiliation with the company.
  • It should include a sincere apology to consumers in a quote from a senior company official.
  • The telephone number should be effective seven days a week and if possible 24 hours a day; easy to do with an answering service screening calls.
  • The consumer website should have a clear notification of a product recall and a link to a page with more specific information in a more consumer-friendly style than the FDA news release.
  • This website home page should also feature a sincere apology from a senior company official as well, in a friendly format suitable to the brand and website.
  • The company should make a clear statement about how it has revised its safety procedures and will carry out careful quality control and product inspections in the future.
  • Company and corporate contact information should be available, clear and easy to find. At present, it’s nonexistent.
  • A media contact should be clearly identified and, most importantly, available for media calls.
  • Of course the media spokesperson should have messaging and training in handling media inquiries.
  • The company should restore its use of social media. Social media should mention the recall carefully and link consumers to the website for more detailed information, especially given the potential harm to children by the “toxic waste” bubble gum.
  • The recall info on the home page or front page of the website can be removed later along with other recall information and kept in the corporate information area. It will be a clear demonstration that the company cares. It will show how it works transparently when any product concerns are raised and will reassure consumers that Candy Dynamics will act responsibly in the future.

These improvements in the company’s recall communications are very simple, much more effective and extremely easy to do. Contrast going the extra mile with only doing the minimum required.

It’s natural for companies to want to say as little as possible to try and protect their brands in a product recall or crisis.

Unfortunately, in the digital age, it’s no longer enough!

Consumers expect better and companies need to be more honest and transparent in their communications to protect their brand and their reputation. Not to mention going the extra mile for legal, insurance and business continuity reasons.

In the case of Toxic Waste bubblegum, its recall communications simply left me with a bad taste.

You can read other recent crisis PR posts including:
Crisis PR Coach: Bravo Farms Cheese Recall

PR Fail: ‘Cooks Source’ Stirs Up Crisis PR Broth
Crisis Coach: Good Earth Tea Recall Recovers
Crisis Coach: Marie Claire Stumbling Badly
Crisis Coach: Pictsweet Frozen Vegetable Recall

The PR Library has many more crisis communications and crisis management resources and there are several excellent crisis PR titles in the PR Bookstore as well. I’d love to have you as a regular blog reader. You can subscribe to This Just In… here or get the blog feed in your RSS reader.

What are your thoughts on product recalls? Brands first, consumers next? Surely not. Did Toxic Waste do enough? Comments are most welcome.

Author:  Jeff Domansky is Editor, The PR Coach

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