After a toy recall, a company must over-communicate to correct sometimes conflicting public perceptions

Just prior to the holiday season, how can they promise safe toys?

After what seems like a never-ending cycle of firms recalling their products, Congress jumped into the ring with an oversight hearing to determine what is going on.

Companies that recalled children’s products in the past two months

August 2, 2007: Fisher-Price Inc.
Reason: lead paint on dolls such as Dora the Explorer.

August 3, 2007: The Orvis Company.
Reason: small parts choking hazard on stuffed animal.

August 14, 2007: Mattel Inc.
Reason: Three separate products, Doggie Day Care, Batman action figures and Barbie & Tanner play sets, contain magnets that could cause choking.

August 14, 2007: Mattel Inc.
Reason: Lead paint on toy cars.

August 21, 2007: Hampton Direct.
Reason: Lead paint on toy train sets.

August 22, 2007: Schylling Associates Inc.
Reason: Lead paint on spinning tops.

August 22, 2007: Martin Designs Inc.
Reason: Lead paint on SpongeBob SquarePants™ Address Books and Journals.

August 23, 2007: St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Reason: Priddy “Trucks” Shaker Teether Books pose a choking hazard to young children.

August 28, 2007: Jo-Ann Stores Inc.
Reason: Lead paint on Robbie Ducky™ Kids Watering Cans.

August 30, 2007: Toys “R” Us Inc.
Reason : Lead paint in wood case packaging.

September 4, 2007: Fisher-Price Inc.
Reason: Lead paint on Big Big World 6-in-1 Bongo Band toys.

September 4, 2007: Fisher-Price Inc.
Reason: Lead paint on Geo Trax Locomotive Toys.

September 4, 2007: Mattel Inc.
Reason: Lead paint on Barbie Accessory Toys.

September 4, 2007: NettoCollection LLC.
Reason: Threat of entrapment and strangulation on “Moderne” and “Loft” Cribs.

For Mattel or Fisher-Price — both of which recalled products made in China due to lead-paint hazards and choking risks — testifying before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on toy safety could be an opportunity to recover a sullied reputation. But the complexity of sending an effective message to assure the public their products are safe is made all the more difficult when an executive speaks to a congressional committee.

“Testifying before Congress can be brutal,” says Annette Veech, senior lecturer in communications at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. “Once Congress is involved, those companies have a lot more explaining to do about how they are going to get to the root cause of the problem.”

So far, Mattel’s attempts to assure the public have fallen short because there is a deeper question brewing.

“Yes, Mattel has a good message online from its CEO. Yes, they had a good full-page ad in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Yes, they pulled products. But the underlying question is: should we return manufacturing to the United States?” Veech says.

Mattel no longer manufactures anything in the United States. In the minds of some, only Mattel’s brand image is “American-made.”

“When you start to get that kind of a division, it increases consumer suspicion,” Veech says. “I think Mattel needs to meld individual items with as many messages as they can. One or two full-page ads in major papers is not enough. They need to be considering how to get to people when they walk in the store, and how to reach the sales clerks so they will recommend Mattel toys.”

Annette Veech
Annette Veech

To recover its image, Mattel can’t just blame lax oversight on the part of the Chinese government, especially since the Chinese recently banned the use of lead paint.

“How does Mattel prove to the public what Tylenol was able to do more than 20 years ago?” Veech asks. “This is a huge challenge for the company. They say they have a three-step plan to minimize the risk and that they’ll check the toys on every production line. But what does that really mean? They need to help consumers envision what that means and how those actions will ensure the toys are safe the next time they walk into a store.”

Veech says the congressional hearings make it more difficult for Mattel to assure the public because of the intense questioning and scrutiny company officials undergo. Still, with the Christmas season just around the corner, Mattel needs to work fast to clean up its image.

Editor’s note: Professor Veech is available for interviews, Contact Shula Neuman for assistance: (314) 935-5202. Television and radio reporters can conduct live or taped interviews via the University Communications broadcast studio, which is equipped with VYVX and ISDN line.