Lessons from a Messy Diaper (Situation)

I have my reasons why I refrain from giving thumbs up/down opinions on specific crisis situations.  However, I try not to miss opportunities when current lessons can be applied to the profession of crisis management.  A recent Advertising Age article provides such a case, through its rare in-the-moment account of strategic planning and execution that takes place in a crisis “war room.”  Here’s a link to the article.

In this case, Procter & Gamble assembled a crisis team to help protect the Pampers brand of diapers when critics began to question whether its new Dry Max formulation was creating “chemical burns.” 

Although the situation is ongoing and a quick scan of the brand’s Facebook page suggests the situation is far from over, the article does provide insights to some very good crisis management practices:

Active capability:  It was great to read that there was a team focused on the problem for weeks/months before the situation became a full bore-media crisis. 

Insight and context:  The team was able to access some “living archives” of P&G history by tapping the Encore group of P&G retirees.  (Every company should have such an incredible resource.)  The incidence of reported fires caused by then-just-launched dryer sheets provided perspective.  It echoed the current situation, since the company could only reportedly vouch for two reports of diaper rash for every million samples sent.   In other words, the data didn’t harmonize with the amount of passion-fueled anger the company faced on these Dry Max diapers.  (I also believe that when your facts are solid enough to offset opposition fueled by emotion, you can chance bringing a reporter “under the tent” during the crisis response.  A rare opportunity, well played here.)

Responsible action:  It takes resources to phone consumers who report diaper rash and then pay for pediatrician visits.  Worthy investments, from a reputation management perspective.  It was also wise for P&G to responsibly disclose the advisory board relationship of pediatric safety and risk group in their posted statement

Listening post:  The article claims that P&G has a handful of employees who listen carefully to consumer reactions on social media.  (I wonder if they’ll see this blog post?  Hi, gang.)  It also appears they’re analyzing patterns and trends, which is the difference between hearing and listening, in my view.

SEO:  Ensuring that the response has the right keywords for search-engine optimization (SEO) is a required step these days, to direct searchers to your information.

Thresholds:  The article doesn’t specifically state this, but P&G’s decision to start taking a “tougher tone” was likely not a knee-jerk decision.  It suggests that the company may have a pre-determined a set of thresholds that would trigger escalated responses.  If so, this is a highly recommended approach – it’s very difficult to have that perspective in the moment.

To be clear, I’m not judging the situation or players, nor predicting an outcome.   I’m a new dad.  If my son had a bad rash, I’d be upset if I didn’t have satisfactory answers from a product that could be the cause.  I’m simply recapping what is noteworthy about the P&G approach to crisis management. 

Do you have any insights or opinions on their approach?  If so, please participate through the comments section below.

Update (May 14):  I stated above that the situation is ongoing, and today’s report from Bloomberg Businessweek raises some other concerns of parents.  This update doesn’t detract from the key lessons above, but it does provide more color on this particular situation.  (This is why it’s always tricky to offer opinions of ongoing situations.)  The article also contains a good summary of parents who used social networks to voice concerns on other issues.

Update (Sept. 2):  Read the CPSC and Health Canada report, which does not identify any specific cause linking compliants to these diapers.  In addition, it reminds parents that diaper rash is a common occurance.

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