Cadbury product recall needs two-way dialogue

As a lifetime lover of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate, I read with some dismay a BBC News report yesterday that Cadbury has announced a product recall in the UK.

The recall actually affects seven of their products, all variants of the Dairy Milk brand, where some of these products may contain minute traces of salmonella. While Cadbury says the recall is being carried out as a “precautionary measure,” the news reporting of it would likely cause some alarm among consumers.

From the BBC report:

[…] A Cadbury spokesman said […] “The levels are significantly below the standard that would be any health problem, but we are taking this measure as a precaution.” The [Food Standards Agency] said it was advising people not to eat the products and is carrying out an investigation. The [Health Protection Agency] is also carrying out an investigation.

The recall is front-page news in today’s Daily Telegraph and other UK mainstream media are reporting on the story.

What’s especially interesting is that the contamination happened some five months ago, yet only now has Cadbury issued a product recall. Much of the news commentary is asking why it has taken Cadbury so long to issue the product recall. And take a look at blogosphere commentary so far.

This could be damaging to Cadbury, and I would imagine their corporate communicators are rolling out the crisis communication plan they undoubtedly have tucked up their sleeves.

You wouldn’t get that impression, though, from their website. Nothing on the corporate site nor the main brand site, although there is a prominent link to the recall announcement on the company’s UK site.

BL Ochman writes that Cadbury goes for total message control in how they’re handling communication over this recall. From what I can see today, it’s very little communication rather than any kind of control.

Cadbury has a great opportunity here to create the means for some two-way dialogue with consumers as part of their communication activity on what they need to do to allay consumer concerns about health risks as well as reinforce the values of their brand as being safe to consume. Blogs could have featured as part of that plan, but it’s too late now – you need to have your social media in place as part of your crisis planning well before the crisis actually comes along.

Cadbury did have a series of blogs set up for newly-hired graduates to talk about their experiences as new employees. Those blogs are closed now. A pity, as that could have been an interesting and already-established place for some discussion surrounding this issue.

Watching the fast-moving developments.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Dan Hill

    Your opening commentary is very interesting Neville. This product recall is highly emotive. The public perception is very much pre-geared towards feeling everything is in hand.
    Almost as if no-one wants to believe there’s a problem with consuming chocolate.

    With this backing Cadbury are very lucky to be on the front foot before the issue really hit the headlines.

    From a consumer point of view we want to hear:
    The public health is in potential danger because of our product. However minute that danger we must therefore not sell this product until the risk is averted.

    Anything other than this is going to affect your brand. Cadbury took a gamble by playing the waiting game and lost.

    What we are stuck with is the Cadbury’s Managing Director Simon Baldry or their European President saying Cadbury products are perfectly safe to eat but being recalled to prevent confusion. This line of defence falls down very quickly when the bacteriologist comes in and says indeed you would be right if your talking about meat or cooked products, but with chocolate there is no such thing as a same level of salmonella.

    In some respects I’m very glad that Cadbury isn’t unleashing more channels to spread this half-truth (that being the most generous description I can give it).

    Now if they wanted to throw more communications out there to spread the truth…

    “Yep, sorry folks, we hold our hands up. Didn’t think there was a problem and we couldn’t put the hundreds/thousands of jobs at risk on the off chance that it would materialise. There’s still no evidence that points to our products causing the increase in cases of salmonella poisoning this year but we are removing the products in question from the shelves to assure the public that we are taking this issue seriously.”

    … that I would be willing to encourage.

    The truth is the only stance that cannot be undermined. Taking any other stance is as good a reason as you will find to stay as quiet as possible.

  2. neville

    A very thoughtful commentary, Dan, thanks.

    A quick look through online news early this Sunday morning shows that the focus of mainstream media reporting is now mostly about the five months between the problem being discovered, why Cadbury didn’t report their findings to government health authorities, and the continuing insistance by the company’s spokespeople that their chocolate is safe to eat.

    I saw the UK managing director interviewed on BBC TV news last night. He did well, appeared highly confident, etc. Yet that may well be a wholly wrong image to be projecting. Needs a bit of humility here.

    This has the makings of becoming a major crisis for Cadbury, and not just to do with their reputation. I see in the Google News results I looked at this morning that media in quite a few other countries are picking up on this story. So I’d say it’s likely that Cadbury products will be disappearing from the shelves in other countries pretty soon.

    I noticed, by the way, that Cadbury’s corporate global website now has a link to the product recall announcement on the UK site. Looks like the communicators are working this weekend.

    Your suggested Cadbury message is great. Contrast it with the text in the recall announcement:

    Cadbury is conducting a recall of seven of its products in the UK.


    This is being done purely as a precautionary measure, as some of these products may contain minute traces of salmonella. Cadbury has identified the source of the problem and rectified it, and is taking steps to ensure these particular products are no longer available for sale.

    Cadbury expects to have fresh stocks of these products back on the market in the near future.

    The decision was made in consultation with the Food Standards Agency with whom Cadbury has worked closely.

    “We’ve been making chocolate for over 100 years and quality has always come first”, said Simon Baldry, the UK Managing Director of Cadbury, “We have taken this precautionary step because our consumers are our highest priority. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

    I know which message seems more credible and believable to me.

    I really hate to see this situation happening, and not just because it’s about my favourite brand of chocolate. It’s more to do with watching an event unfolding at a speed quicker than the company probably thinks it is, where you can see the communication and engagement opportunities being missed that would enable Cadbury to potentially come out of it with their reputation intact if not enhanced.

    I wonder what Monday morning will bring.

  3. Ian Betteridge

    Sorry, but Dan’s advice is awful. That’s not to say that what Cadbury has publically said is good, but at least it errs on the side of caution.

    Saying “Yep, sorry folks, we hold our hands up” would be an exceptionally fine way of getting yourself sued into extinction. One of the first rules of any situation in which you may find yourself legally exposed, whether you’re a corporation or individual, is “say nothing”. Admitting potential future liability – which is what Dan’s statement is suggesting – would be suicidal, and probably open up the executives to a suit from shareholders, to boot (it may form a breach of their fiduciary duty towards the shareholders).

    A crisis where there is the potential for devastating legal action isn’t one that you can manage with a bit of matey “sorry chaps, we messed up” PR. The fact is that Cadbury goofed, and now it’s open to legal action – so it HAS to limit the potential legal action by effectively saying nothing. All questions of “believability” have to take a back seat.

  4. neville

    All you say makes complete sense, Ian. Yet there will be a way to find the right balance between keeping the lawyers happy and communicating in a credible and believable manner. What they’ve done so far lacks that, in my view.

    “Say nothing” is good, but Cadbury has been doing precisely the opposite of that since Friday.

    I see no problem at all with employing a bit of ‘matey “sorry chaps, we messed up” PR.’ It would certainly be credible, in my view. And “messed up” looks exactly like what happened, according to media reporting.

    Therein lies part of the issue – the media are all over this story focusing on the 5-month gap between the problem surfacing and the product recall being announced. All Cadbury is doing at the moment is robuslty defending its reasons for not reporting the problem to the health authorities and saying their products are safe to consume. Those same health authorities are highly critical indeed of Cadbury’s inaction, and they keep saying that the products have been recalled while an investigation goes on.

    This is probably adding to the reporting focus as well as increasing consumer concern rather than allaying it.

    Hardly a situation that inspires consumer confidence in Cadbury’s products. So I’d say “believability” ought to be in the front seat.

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