Best Practices During Product Recalls Include Social Media

September 28, 2011
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Product recalls represent one of the most challenging public relations issues faced by health care firms.  According to the FDA, Class I product recalls, the most serious level, can cause significant health problems or even death.

Product recalls represent one of the most challenging public relations issues faced by health care firms.  According to the FDA, Class I product recalls, the most serious level, can cause significant health problems or even death.  In 2011 there have been 37 drug recalls to date; most of these have been Class I recalls, requiring significant publicity.  While no firm can be completely prepared for such unexpected events, some firms have managed these communication challenges more skillfully than others.

In September 2011 the Marketing and Communications Committee of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council convened a group of media and public relations professionals, along with industry representatives, to discuss best practices during a product recall.  The role of social media in crisis management was also explored.
 
The panel, moderated by Lisa Adler, VP Corporate Communications at Millennium included the following participants:
  • Arlene Weintraub, NYC Bureau Chief, Xconomy
  • Adam Feuerstein, Senior Columnist,  thestreet.com
  • Rob Weisman, Business and Technology Writer, The Boston Globe
  • Manisha Pai, Associate Director, Corporate Communications, Millennium
  • Todd Ringler, Managing Director Media Relations, Edelman Public Relations
  • David Albaugh, Senior Manager Public Relations, Millennium 

Three simple rules

  Adler opened the discussion by offering  three simple rules that firms should follow during a product recall:
  • Communicate and update
  • Be transparent and accessible
  • Provide a method for customers to communicate and ask questions
Todd Ringler added that high profile product recalls in health care have changed the way they are managed.  He observed that firms have become more willing to communicate proactively, motivated by both internal and external stakeholders. 
 
Start by taking action
  
According to Ringler, firms that successfully manage crises such as product recalls are very good at quickly understanding what went wrong and initiating corrective action before communicating to the outside.   He advised that explaining what happened and what’s being done should be central to a firm’s communications message. 
 
David Albaugh recommended that a firm’s crisis management team include members that have responsibility for both internal and external audiences.  He emphasized that the team also needs to include people who can take action within the company, such as a manufacturing representative who has the authority to stop production if necessary.   This is critical in allowing firms to address the issue of what they’re doing to correct the situation.  Albaugh also advised that communication across audiences be consistent.   In addition to the media, he suggested that relevant audiences should include patient advocacy groups and FDA. 
 
Rob Weisman observed that companies do best when they are open and transparent.  He recommended taking the time to educate reporters on the background of a case so they can put the problem in context.  He recounted his experience reporting contamination in a biologic manufacturing plant at Genzyme.  Genzyme helped him understand what they were doing by giving him a tour of the plant and explaining the manufacturing process in detail.   He found this especially helpful since he had limited knowledge about the challenges of manufacturing biologic products before the crisis.
 
Using social media during a product recall
  
During a product recall Lisa Adler noted that there is a need to communicate with many audiences utilizing a number of methods.  Social media is one of these methods.  Rob Weisman and Adam Feuerstein observed that tools like Twitter can be very useful as an alert mechanism.  Manisha Pai concurred, adding that social media can help companies quickly create a link to more detailed information.  David Albaugh pointed out that social media can help firms stay learn about potential problems more quickly by subscribing to FDA alerts (via Twitter or RSS).
 
In addition to giving firms an opportunity to proactively communicate, Todd Ringler observed that social media is especially useful in providing ongoing information which doesn’t need to be formally communicated.  It’s also valuable when product recalls affect a small number of patients.  Finally, he noted that social media allows firms to monitor what the market is saying about them or how patient advocacy groups are reacting.
 
Break the story before it breaks you
  
Both Todd Ringler and Arlene Weintraub agreed that giving reporters a heads up prior to communicating with the public is tremendously helpful in building trust and credibility among the media.  This is especially critical during a product recall.  Ringler agreed, emphasizing that this strategy has always been effective for his clients.   
 
In closing,  David Albaugh emphasized that putting the patient first is the best strategy for protecting the public’s safety and preserving a firm’s reputation. 

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