Companies sometimes have to handle negative publicity when things go wrong. A firm may accidentally contaminate a product during production. In such cases they have to recall the product and withdraw it from supermarket shelves. Unfortunately a product may be the victim of product tampering. This is where people damage it in some way and then make false claims. This may be to get money from the manufacturers of a brand or the store where it is sold – or else simply for media attention. A sad fact is that when such stories are reported they often cause a wave of copycat behaviour.
Gerber is one of the best known brands of baby food products in the United States. So when, twenty years ago, pieces of glass were discovered in its fruit juice, it immediately recalled 550,000 jars. However, the negative publicity saw sales of Gerber products fall by 4%. So when, two years later, there were over 200 complaints concerning glass in its baby food, Gerber management decided to try and keep everything as quiet as possible. An inspection of 36,000 jars showed that even the largest pieces of glass were so small that they were practically invisible. As the glass appeared harmless, a recall seems unnecessary and unjustified. Many believed that the glass had not been the fault of production but that publicity seekers had deliberately put it in the food. Maybe if Gerber's reputation hadn't been damaged by the juice incident, they would have issued a product recall. But this time they made the mistake of trying to keep quiet and released a storm of media criticism.
Legally Gerber had acted in good faith and saw itself as the victim. They could point to their quality manufacturing process and high standards. If a flaw had been found in their process, they would have immediately corrected it. Ethically the situation was more complicated. Babies are innocent and helpless and Gerber had built its reputation on providing them with the safest and highest quality products. Gerber should have been seen to do everything in its power to prevent the mouths of babies being cut. At the very least the company should have responded publicly with their side of the story. If Gerber had handled the media better, it would have avoided much of the negative publicity.
By contrast, Pepsi provides an excellent example in how to deal with a product tampering crisis. In 1993 syringes were reported in its products and the company acted swiftly. Cameras went into its plant and filmed its high-speed, high-tech canning process, which is specifically designed to prevent contamination. This was then shown to an estimated audience of 187 million people. A second release dealt with the arrest of someone in connection with the tampering. A third actually showed a woman filmed as she put a syringe into an opened can of the soft drink. It talked about copycat behaviour being responsible. Pepsi rounded off its campaign with a national TV and print advertisement, which thanked consumers and gave them the message that they could drink as much Pepsi as they wanted.
Profile Intermediate, Oxford Business English
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