In February 2016, Mars faced one of its worst case scenarios – a contaminated product with the potential to 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 was a big story for the media in terms of reach (everyone who loves chocolate), scale (worldwide) and implications (would people/children stop eating the chocolate bars, would 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 was 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 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, made a good start by issuing a voluntary product recall, helping the company to limit 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 had to revise its recall. Initially Mars stated that 55 countries were affected but later admitted they didn’t actually know how many countries were involved and upgraded the recall to “global”. Mars made it clear they believed 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. It would change the story, the implications and the media coverage hugely if more if more pieces of plastic were found.
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.