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Appliance maker Mueller Austria sets precedent for consumer product recalls

Heads up consumer product companies: There’s something new in recall communications that may change expectations for everyone.

As you may have seen, appliance maker Mueller Austria has issued a joint news release with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) that urges consumers to “immediately stop using select versions of Mueller Austria’s Onion Chopper Pro.” The pre-emptive announcement notes that Mueller Austria and CPSC are still negotiating an official recall, but says the firm wants to protect consumers in the meantime.

In addition, the release added that “the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has created a number of unforeseeable circumstances for Mueller Austria, and it remains uncertain when a remedy will become possible.”

We applaud this unprecedented action. In our experience, the reputational risk associated with announcing a recall so quickly is low. Usually, CPSC recalls are deemed “voluntary” and a company negotiates over days with the agency before they are announced. Too often, companies are perceived to have delayed their recalls and have issued them only under the pressure of a “mandatory” recall and fines from the CPSC.

So what should you take away from this recent development?

  1. Recall communication during a global crisis is more than just a single news release. A pre-recall announcement like this demonstrates a commitment to consumer safety. In the eyes of most consumers, the recall amounts to being official – even though that distinction will be marked by a second news release. But it might not stop there. Depending on the time that passes between the official announcement and the availability of a remedy, a third or even fourth update may be necessary to ensure adequate response rates. Companies should be prepared for a long-tail of media and consumer attention during global crises like COVID-19.
  2. Remedy challenges are real. CPSC has been warning consumers about this since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. But it’s about more than just getting the remedy to consumers. It’s about identifying the right remedy, getting approval from the agency, manufacturing the replacement part (if that’s what’s necessary), and getting the remedy into the consumer's hands.
  3. This announcement may represent the “new normal.” Recall negotiations take time. But during that time, consumers are at risk. At least in the case of the Onion Chopper Pro, consumers are aware of the issue, even if a recall is not officially announced. Done right, this action has the potential to protect the reputation of the CPSC and the recalling company.
  4. Plan for what a pre-recall announcement means for communications. Have your contact center ready. Any time there’s a safety-related announcement, consumers will have questions. Some will share personal experiences, including reports of injury. So even if the recall is not “official,” it’s best you manage it as if it were. Immediately start tracking and documenting consumer calls. It will help you demonstrate to CPSC that your recall was effective, even if response rates are lower than you expect.

We really are in a whole new world. It’s best we prepare for what that means not just for “business as usual” days, but also how it changes crisis and recall management.

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