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Recalls during the COVID-19 pandemic

First and foremost, we hope you and everyone close to you are well. We’re living through an unprecedented time and hopefully, you’re able to find some calm and maintain connections.

Like each of you, we’ve been working through the COVID-19 crisis, encouraging workers to follow the recommendations of federal, state and local health officials. But as crisis management professionals, we also can’t help but think about the long game. We all know that we have yet to see or begin to comprehend the impact our current environment will have on businesses and consumers. Certainly, it will impact near-term revenue, long-term investments, and consumer spending.

But it will also impact the world of recalls. Here are our concerns and predictions (which are relevant regardless of the industry you’re in – from pharmaceuticals and medical devices to consumer products, food or transportation):

  1. Reaching consumers to share product recall or other safety-related information will be more challenging than ever before. The focus of so many journalists and news organizations is almost solely on the pandemic. And even if companies are able to get the attention of a news outlet, will consumers notice it?
  2. Recall effectiveness rates will drop. This is in part to the difficulty companies will have communicating with consumers. But the industry that will feel it most is food and beverage, particularly shelf-stable and frozen food products.
  3. Companies and regulators alike should expect every action or inaction to face added scrutiny – whether it’s a perceived delay in announcing a recall or concern that a decrease in overseas inspections put consumers at risk. These narratives fit right into the agenda of consumer NGOs.
  4. Emotional consumers – bombarded with facts, misinformation and disinformation for weeks – will ask some form of the question: “What does this mean in light of the COVID-19 pandemic?” Companies should be prepared to answer every question in this category clearly and concisely, especially if the answer is that there is no connection at all.
  5. The FDA already publicly acknowledged that drug shortages could be a byproduct of the pandemic. One significant recall not only makes that risk a reality but also adds pressure on regulators and companies to effectively manage the event. The challenge on the company will be greater if the quality team is forced to manage the event remotely.

While none of us have lived through a global crisis quite like this one, our recall experience informs our unique perspective on the risks and challenges associated with these types of reputational matters.

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