Wednesday 11 November 2009

Somebody hand the Maclaren PR people a coffee. They need it

So according to news reports, Maclaren, the British buggy manufacturers, are having to recall 1 million of their buggies in the US because 12 children have managed to get their fingers chopped off in the hinge mechanism. They're also distributing thousands of safety devices to parents to fit onto the buggies to avoid the problem. But they're not doing it in the UK.

Apparently, according to Maclaren and its PR agency, the buggies are safe if used properly and they see no need to issue the safety devices at this time. This has caused a parental uproar. There is no group of people more likely to get their knickers in a twist about something than parents.

The parents are split into two camps:

There's the A) 'What about us?' brigade who feel that the same recall should also happen here and that the safety devices should be sent out. The sceptics amongst them are saying that the only reason Maclaren is taking action in the US is because American parents are a more litigious bunch. They're baying for blood... just not from their children's fingers.

And then there's the B) 'Oh get a grip' camp who feel it is a parent's duty to look after their children and that they're just as likely to get their children's fingers trapped in car doors or door frames as anywhere else. And they'll also point out that the buggies meet EU safety regs and that you shouldn't open or close your buggy with your child anywhere near it.

Of the two camps, I'd prefer to be in B camp because I'm not a big fan of the sue culture and quite frankly don't have enough time to get too worked up about these things. On the other hand, I do find the sanctimonious rumblings of the 'perfect parent' brigade pretty hard to swallow too. Sometimes you do have to open your buggy with your child nearby. And surprisingly, children don't always do as they're told. And if a buggy has the potential to chop off fingers, perhaps a safety device would be nice.

But ultimately this is a PR disaster in the making. Any parent out there right now deciding which buggy to buy will at the back of their minds be thinking: Maclaren, oh yes, they're potentially not safe. Better look at something else. And then there are the hordes of genuinely confused parents who've heard the reports of a product recall and just don't know whether they're supposed to be returning their product or not. I imagine the helplines at Maclaren are a tad busy right now.

And it's hard to know what hell the Maclaren PR team are going through at the moment (I imagine it involves quite a few late nights and some extra strong coffees). What was the correct course of action? All crisis PR rule books say that you communicate, communicate, communicate. Which I guess they have been doing. But it's always been through a 'statement' or from an unnamed spokesperson. They need to get their MD out there explaining their case. Put a comforting, reassuring, sensible British perspective on this issue.

Perhaps their thinking went as follows: 'by offering the safety gadgets in the UK, we're admitting that our products are unsafe'. So perhaps they're trying to reinforce the message that their products are safe if used correctly, with no need for an extra safety bit. But then why give them out in the US? It invites the criticism that they're simply doing it to avoid being sued. Surely the product is either safe or it's not? Either offer the device everywhere, or not at all.

I suggest that they offer them in the UK under the advice of: "Our buggies are safe when used correctly. However, if you have any reason for concern, we can send you a safety gadget." Then send them the gadget with more explanations about why the buggies are safe. And then communicate, communicate, communicate with those customers. Turn the negative experience into a positive one. Let all retailers know that the buggies are safe but send them the safety doodah to give to customers as an option should a customer ask about it.

I think Maclaren is trying to be British about this. They're trying to downplay it. They're trying to tap into the the 'sensible British reserve in which one doesn't sue or create a flap'. Perhaps they think that the less the say, the sooner it will go away. But they shouldn't underestimate the power of parents.


Joanne said...

The same happened with chemicals in the plastics used to make babies' bottles and drinking cups. Banned in the USA but not here. Are we somehow inferior beings?

MIndful Mum said...

Hi Home Office Mum,

I think you have described both camps very well.

Regarding what Maclaren should do next...? They have a fantastic opportunity to turn this around by offering the hinge covers in the UK.

It would demonstrate that they listen to their customers concerns, rather than ignoring them and hiding behind their 'compliance with the stringent EU quality standards '.

So many companies work 'just within' the legal safety standards - no competitive advantage there Maclaren.

By making the hinges available in the UK they can reassure customers, gain some 'good faith' and turn their PR disaster into a great safe Marketing campaign.

In response to Joe Blogs, in the US the bottle manufacturers announced they would stop using Bisphenol-a (BPA) because of customer concern. There was no official CPSC recall in the US although Canada has banned it.

So there is a precedent for companies to be bold and act in response to customer concerns rather than adhering strictly to what is 'allowed by the UK Trade Standard Institute' or US CPSC.

Home Office Mum said...

Thanks for the comments Jo and Mindful Mum. I think you're right Mindful, they have an opporutunity to exceed customer expectations rather than just meet them.

nappy valley girl said...

They should definitely offer the covers in the UK, and for free. Otherwise they'll be permanently damaging their brand- not just for being dangerous, but disingenous, confusing and not truly concerned about children's safety. You can't have one rule for one country and one for another - especially in an era of instant global communication.

Iota said...

I think the solution you come up with in your penultimate para is ideal. They should employ you.

I rather agree that they should either d the extra safety business in the US and UK, or neither. One but not the other is neither logical, nor good for their image.

Home Office Mum said...

Nappy Valley and Iota - they must have read my blog ;-) They're now saying that they will offer the safety covers globally and that they had been 'too shy in their communications'

Meanwhile check out the US reaction by parents

I feel a call to PR Week coming on

Anonymous said...

I think their safety gadget is now available to UK customers, but it doesn't really matter really as it is a PR disaster for the company. My daughter always had Maclaren and they were brilliant pushchairs but it would make perfect sense for anyone thinking of buying one now not to even consider the brand.

The probably need to get themselves on Watchdog now and try and explain the situation they suddenly find themselves in.

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