Learning by Example: Blue Bell’s Response to Product Recall Includes Valuable Lessons

By Sara Rider   |   April 29, 2015

by Sara Rider

When bad things happen, companies can either stand up or they can back down.  This week, Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries takes the first step on a long road back to profitability and consumer confidence as it launches an intensive cleaning program and a new employee training program at four production facilities.  So far, Blue Bell is doing an admirable job of crisis management—and that professional response could mean that “Pralines and Cream” and “Banana Split” addicts may get to indulge in their favorite flavors sooner rather than later.

So from a crisis communications point-of-view, what has Blue Bell done right?  First, they owned the problem.  Then, they put a human face to the company’s response.  Visit their homepage and there is a “heartfelt message from our employees” as well as news and FAQs.  And the heartfelt message is actually emotional, with one employee taking an approach that ranks among my all-time favorite strategies for crisis response, when he describes what other people tell him to think, but how he is responding differently:  “It hurts my heart to see the company going through this.  Some people say you shouldn’t take it personal, but I take it personal because I have a heart for the company I work for.”  Another employee tears up.  And it all comes across as very real, not as a manipulation.

Next, Blue Bell talked about what they are doing now to correct the problem while emphasizing that they weren’t slacking off before.

When Blue Bell announced April 10 that it was expanding its voluntary recall to all of its products from all of its facilities “because they have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes,” they didn’t waste time speculating about a possible cause for the contamination.  Instead, their CEO Paul Kruse emphasized that “we’re committed to doing 100 percent the right thing, and the best way to do that is to take all of our products off the market until we can be confident they are all safe.”  In his statement, Kruse also said they the company had “brought in one of the world’s most respected food safety microbiologists to inspect our plants and systems.”  Other statements from the company talked about implementing “additional safety procedures and testing,” implying that they had systems in place already.  Blue Bell also talks about “expanding our already robust system of daily cleaning and sanitizing of equipment” and “expanding our system of swabbing and testing our plant environment by 800 percent to include more surfaces.”  The message is two-fold:  we are going above and beyond to fix this; we were already very serious about food safety.

When we’ve counseled companies dealing with a crisis, we sometimes see them attempt to sidestep the damage, or sweep things under the rug.  Blue Bell has done none of that.  Instead the company has realized that this is a serious situation and they have to act.  Blue Bell has recalled an estimated eight million gallons of ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet, and frozen snacks.  That’s a lot of ice cream.  How well the company comes back from this crisis and overcomes the three deaths attributed to “the best ice cream in the country,” will depend to a large part on how much goodwill all those years of vanilla ice cream, chocolate, and seasonal favorites created in the mind of the consumer—and how much their taste buds hunger for the ice cream made by a company who says they “eat all they can and sell the rest.”

photo credit: Russ

About the Author

Sara Rider, Vice President at DeLaune & Associates, has written extensively for the healthcare, financial, non-profit, and technology industries for more than 30 years.

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