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Following the recent Fisher-Price incident in the news, Charlie discusses product recall and the difficult decisions that organisations face.

This week’s news has been dominated by the fire in Notre-Dame Cathedral. I have noticed the story has already shifted from the initial shock at seeing such an iconic building on fire, to questioning how if over €800m can be raised so fast for the Cathedral’s repair, then why is this money not available for ‘more worthy’ causes. I suspect that when the investigation is complete, it will show that this event had all the issues typically associated with incidents. The chronic underinvestment and the amount of organisation involved in the repairs taking place at the time, meant that it was an accident waiting to happen for years; it only took one small incident to set off a chain reaction and cause an immense amount of damage. Before I go on to the main topic of today’s bulletin, I hope that when they rebuild the Cathedral, they learn from the Glasgow School of Art and don’t let another fire destroy the rebuild.

The incident which got my attention in the news this week was an article on the BBC website, entitled ‘Fisher-Price recalls millions of baby sleepers after fatalities’. What caught my eye about the story was this line on the BBC site: ‘The recall was announced by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) on Friday. On its website, the commission said at least 30 infants had died in the sleeper model since its 2009 release’. My first thought was, how many babies have to die before you recall a product? Did they think that 5 deaths were okay, and that 15 were bad, but when it reached over 30 children, they decided this was the threshold for recall? Secondly, why did we have to wait for ten years for the product to be recalled? Was it because the threshold of 30 had not been reached? The truth, of course, is a little more nuanced.

The cause of the deaths was not directly because of the crib, but was due to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) ‘after the infants rolled from their back to their stomach or side while unrestrained, or under other circumstances’. Guidance to prevent SIDS says that babies should not be left on an incline or a moving surface, and they should not have other pillows in with them whilst they are asleep. The crib has all three of these factors. To make the recall more complex, the product was very popular with sleep-deprived parents, as they found the crib was a great way to get their newborn to sleep.

The final straw for the crib came earlier this week when the American Academy of Paediatrics urged the product’s recall, labelling the sleeper ‘deadly’. Following this, Fisher-Price in partnership with the CPSC, decided that a voluntary recall of 4.7 million cribs was the best course of action.

I thought the actions taken by Fisher-Price were similar to the dilemma faced by Boeing regarding the safety of its 737 Max aircraft. When you have a very successful product, it is a difficult decision to pull the product off the market and offer refunds. The difficulty is that if you recall it too soon then the incident involving your product might be a freak accident and down to user misuse. If you recall it too late or are forced to do so by a regulator, it looks like you are putting profits before people. Once you have taken the product off the market, how do you introduce it back into the market, and how do you convince your customers it is now safe?

The Tylenol case on 5th October 1982, when seven people died of taking cyanide-contaminated pills is often used as a good example of how to manage product recall. On finding out about the deaths, the organisation immediately recalled all their products off the USA shelves, and only when they had devised tamper-resistant packaging did they relaunch the product. Soon after relaunch, they actually increased their market share. This story is very well told in this YouTube clip.

In my study of crisis management, I don’t think that there is a protocol you can follow when looking at product recall. There are good tried and tested procedures for managing it and implementing it, but an organisation has to make the initial decision to recall the product. Tylenol, in their decision, were perhaps helped by the fact that the threat was not of their own doing, but it was still a brave decision to recall all of their products. To date, Fisher-Price have not been majorly criticised for their recall, but there have been lots of articles criticising the Boeing response to their two crashes, and they have been forced to ground all their 737 Max aircraft, rather than doing it voluntarily. I think it is during these judgement calls where members of the crisis team or senior management have to make the really difficult decisions and earn their salaries. You can practice and train them in the process of decision making, and you can exercise the team in product recall, but in the end only hindsight will decide whether they made the right decision! This is difficult to simulate, so in the end product recall will be a judgement call, but good crisis management procedures, plans, and practice can go a long way to helping your crisis team make the right judgement.

If you are interested in Incident Response and Crisis Management training, we have a course coming up on the 25th-26th April 2019. You can find further information and book your place here.

Wishing you all a lovely Easter Bank Holiday weekend!

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