Crisis lessons from a lead contamination scare

A high profile product safety scare in Australia has some important lessons in terms of crisis communication and standing firm in the face of risk allegations.

On 10 July the Queensland Building and Construction Commission (QBCC) issued a surprise report claiming that independent testing showed a kitchen mixer tap sold by German discount giant ALDI could contaminate drinking water with lead levels up to fifteen times the safety guideline.

With a reported 12,000 taps sold as part of a “special buy” offering, the story predictably went viral, generating very heavy media coverage throughout the country.

ALDI’s initial response was pretty much text book.

  • Placed a hold on further sales
  • Confirmed the taps had been tested prior to sale and were fully compliant
  • Pledged co-operation with authorities
  • Reiterated their return and refund policy on all products.

But most importantly they did NOT commit to a recall. Instead ALDI suggested customers temporarily avoid use of the Chinese-made tap while the company commissioned further testing. Such investigation, they said, could take more than two weeks.

In the face of massive adverse media coverage, and delayed re-testing, many companies might have folded and ordered an immediate recall, maybe using that foolish and largely meaningless phrase “an abundance of caution.” (Managing Outcomes Vol 4, No. 18)

But ALDI stood firm.  “Unfortunately further testing is a lengthy process that can’t be short cut . . . If these results present any indication that a health risk exists for our customers, we will take appropriate action. ALDI will always remove any product from sale if it is identified as a risk to our customers.”

This bold statement relied very heavily on the word “if” and could have gone badly wrong. For example, it might have provoked an involuntary, government-mandated recall – though that seemed increasingly unlikely with the revelation that the QBCC shock results had been based on testing just one single tap. However, the strategy paid off and the story effectively disappeared from the public radar within 48 hours.

Then, on 27 July, the company proudly announced that new tests showed the taps were “safe for use” and the results confirmed tests conducted prior to sale. But ALDI didn’t just issue a statement. CEO Tom Daunt personally hosted a video on Facebook, demonstrating both authority and confidence. And not only did he provide assurance to consumers, he also took the opportunity to rebuke QBCC for what he called its premature report which generated “unnecessary concern and inconvenience.” Their tests, he said, were “not conducted in accordance with the Australian Standard and were not conducted by an appropriately accredited laboratory.”

One tabloid newspaper tried to raise continued doubt, suggesting the QBCC had been gagged by threatened legal action. However, the media reaction was almost universally supportive. For ALDI it was a crisis communication slam dunk.


About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
This entry was posted in Crisis management, Reputation risk and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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