Sunday, March 9, 2014

How Product Recalls Spread Through Social Media

February was a busy month for major product recalls.

Let's look at how the web and social media responded to 3 different companies in 3 different industries that announced major recalls. (A companion set of slides is also available on SlideShare.) The goal is to see if there were any similarities and differences based on how it was handled in those critical first 7 days.

General Motors 

GM announced on February 13th a major ignition switch recall, affecting 1.6 million vehicles. Many believe GM allegedly knew about the risks years ago and should have reported it sooner. A federal investigation is under way.

In the chart above, it is the number of mentions about the GM recall in the first week after the announcement.
As shown, GM instantly got lots of mentions in the mainstream media (under Other), such as Automotive News, USA Today, and Reuters. GM is an established global brand in a 100-year old auto industry that is heavily covered by traditional journalists. It was "front page" news in business publications, automotive publications, and those covering it from the angle of this being the first true test for the new female CEO Mary Barra.

Then news spread quickly on Facebook within 24 hours. Interestingly, Twitter had less conversations. But on Twitter, the top posters were still traditional news outlets like USAToday (with nearly 1 million followers) and @ReutersBiz.

Ironically, if you go to GM's Media site and look at February 12th (around the time of this recall), there is no mention of the ignition switch recall. Instead, there's a press release on how "GM Leads Automakers in Dependability Awards."

Even though @GMCustomerSvc responded to a few users on Twitter, GM was a bit slow to leverage social media to manage this PR crisis. @ChevyCustCare didn't really take to social media to address consumer concerns until nearly 2 weeks later when consumer backlash in social media risked long-term brand damage (a la Toyota's 2010 recall #FAIL). By then #gmrecall was trending quickly.

In a letter to employees, CEO Mary Barra defended GM and said it was a top priority for her to investigate this. Time will tell how this plays out.


Fitbit is a relatively young company that is the category leader in the nascent wearable tech industry. It's Fitbit Force is a wristband you wear that can track your activity. In January, customers were complaining on Fitbit's forums about skin rashes. Initially Fitbit attributed the issues to allergic reactions to nickel and said the device was tested by medical professionals. But consumer complaints piled up, Fitbit finally announced a product recall on February 20th with a blog post by CEO James Park. The Wall Street Journal was one of the first to break the news on mainstream media on February 21st. Then the floodgates burst open when the company's @FitbitSupport Twitter team started to responding to Twitter users. Word also spread, but to a lesser degree, on Facebook. (See below)

Fitbit got news out rapidly across all channels -- on its website and its social media channels instantly. That really helped calm the masses, as shown above.

FreeStyle / Omnipod

FreeStyle, from Abbott Diabetes Care, is a popular brand of blood glucose monitors for diabetes patients. Omnipod is an insulin management system made by Insulet. FreeStyle issued a product recall press release on February 19th on its corporate website about FreeStyle test strips leading to erroneous blood glucose readings when used with Omnipod.

As shown above, news spread rapidly in the first day on Facebook and Twitter via individuals and major diabetes organizations, such as JDRF. Discussions and lots of questions started developing by the first weekend in online forums, such as the American Diabetes Association's A few influential bloggers, such as DiabetesMine and TheBloodSugarWhisperer, also posted the news early on.

By Monday, people were reporting in forums, Facebook, and Twitter of finally receiving letters in the mail and experiencing long wait times in the call center. This led to a second wave of online discussions as shown above.

Mainstream media was not as prominent in this case.


It's generally true that Facebook and Twitter is like gasoline on fire. And brands need to be ready to respond in those channels.

It is also interesting to see there isn't one common pattern for how news, such as major recalls, propagates online. It depends a lot on the industry, the brand's online presence (whether it has active social networks that are engaging with users in a customer support capacity), and an integrated online and offline communication strategy and execution.

When you look at a heavily watched and discussed industry like automotive, consumers (lots of people own, depend on, and love their cars), business people, and journalists all engage in conversations online.

Now look at a traditional regulated industry like medical devices. This industry tends to move slower in general, but it's even more cautious and slow to embrace social media. Heck, it wasn't until January of this year that the FDA finally released its draft guidelines for social media/UGC usage - 10 years after Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg.

As Abbott Diabetes Care and Insulet learned, a few crucial days between the online press release and patient receiving mailed letters, coupled with a lack of a major presence in social networks, really fanned the flames online. Hjalte Hojsgaard, Insulet's manager of consumer marketing, sums up the issue quite well: “We would have liked to get the letter out even sooner, and get the word out on our website and social media, but these things sometimes take some time."

It was the opposite case with Fitbit, which is a company born in the Internet age. So it's not surprising that it had all the info consumers needed online when the recall was announced. It took full advantage of its robust social media presence that includes 13K @FitbitSupport Twitter followers to engage concerned customers. While GM has several decent-sized social media accounts, it waited too long to start engaging customers online, threatening to hurt the GM and Chevy brands.

Overall, Fitbit was the best of the 3 companies in managing the recall, once they "admitted" there was a problem.


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