The Woes (and Whoas) of product recalls

Mattel’s big recall of millions of toys manufactured in China continues to be instructive and entertaining of the nature of large scale product recalls in this hyper-charged media/public watchdog environment.

Consider this story from Forbes appropriately headlined: “Mattel to China: Oops!” 

A few things I find interesting about this unfolding saga:

– whatever huge impact this has on Mattel, it undoubtedly has much greater cumulative impact on all manufacturer selling products made in China. In this regard, this is an unusually wide-spread crisis and makes globalization itself a key part of the issue.

–  Mattel handled the recall, as I pointed out here before, with textbook communication. But now the question comes, did they go overboard? In the rush to make certain they are appearing to be proactive to meet consumer needs, will the CEO face serious scrutiny about how much unnecessary damage he caused the company and shareholders by going far too far? This will be watched by many – and communicators for a long time. We know the trouble that can be caused by looking reactive, going too slow, and not appearing to care about safety. What damage can also be caused by being excessive?

– Fear mongering. We all know, but still pretend it isn’t true–that the media builds audiences by fear. That’s why smart companies like Mattel go so far out of their way to make certain they are addressing fears–even if unfounded. The media had all these stories–one doctor in particular I recall–talking about how horrible lead poisoning is and that parents need to go to extreme measures to protect their kids. Sure, it helped get ratings, but did it serve the public? As the Forbes article points out, lead poisoning is not nearly the safety issue as a lot of other toy concerns. But all that is lost when the headline of the day is: Your kids are going to die if you don’t watch this newscast!

– Sanity returns–but too late. The Forbes comments about putting the danger into perspective are not part of the normal pendulum swings of media coverage. But they are too late. Damage done. Fear mongered. Ratings secured. Parents scared half to death. Companies out of business. Billions in share value lost. Careers ruined. Balance of trade improved. Another day.

– Balance of trade. I’m not a conspiracist, but I still have to think that these endless battles over Chinese goods have more to do with the hidden battle over the balance of trade with China. We are in an unspoken trade war I think. China has retaliated against some ridiculous accusations about products made in China by refusing to allow American food products and other products in for not meeting Chinese standards. Fine if this is the way we want to try and address the balance of trade issue, but where is the media on this one? I think it is simple–doesn’t create the attention that a headline like “your child will die if buy this toy” will certainly do.  But, if I am right, I am just saddened by how much damage, fear, loss of income and damaged careers come about as a result of international politics and economic manuevering. What really bothers me is that our ‘state of fear” is once again reinforced. My grandchildren can’t play with Tommy the Tanker because an irresponsible media has scared the life out of their parents.