Hot Pocket: Hotpocalypse

Although it doesn’t always apply to all industries (e.g. oil and tobacco), behaving ethically can bolster a brand image considerably. Failing to do so when it counts, however, can result in many consumers and brand advocates refusing to give an organization the time of day. Without the voices of the third-party, brands lose credibility. Without credibility, they may as well pack up and go home.

With stories on phone-hacking in the media industry, PR agencies providing counsel to dictators, and firms writing fake online product reviews, it can seem that the PR profession lacks any kind of moral compass. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Ethical behavior in any arm of the communications industry is paramount. Not only does it give communicators a warm, fuzzy feeling to know that they are doing the right thing, it also stops their careers being ended on the spot and plays a large part in brand success.

Recently, Nestlé has been the subject of much talk regarding this issue – for all the wrong reasons.

Honesty and openness (read: behaving ethically) are major contributors to the survival of a brand during a time of crisis. Unfortunately, Nestlé’s Hot Pockets didn’t get that memo. A few weeks ago, Hot Pockets underwent a nation-wide product recall due to “diseased and unsound” meat. The recall, ordered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), was part of a larger effort by the Rancho Feeding Corporation, who the brand used as a supplier in 2013. On February 14th, Nestlé began voluntarily recalling 238,000 boxes of ‘Philly Cheese Steak’ Hot Pockets. The issue? It didn’t tell anyone about its covert operation until four days later. It did this by issuing a press release and a Facebook statement.

The fallout was fast and furious. Audience members took to social media almost immediately to berate the brand.

It’ll come as no surprise that it hasn’t ended terribly well. In addition to the backlash over the contaminated products that the USDA labelled as “Class 1,” Hot Pockets’ lack of integrity ensured that the social media storm surrounding them was devastating, and far more crippling than it needed to be.

“Class 1: This is a health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.”

The malice aimed at the Nestlé product line was the result of two things: its lack of honesty in delaying its statement and neglecting to hold themselves accountable in the statement itself. In an apology reminiscent of God’s final message to mankind from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Hot Pockets offered a message of: “we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.” Never really an appropriate response when “adverse health consequences or death” are concerned.

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Not unlike CVS Caremark in their recent decision to ban tobacco, Hot Pocket also made the mistake of duplicating responses in a cookie-cutter fashion, forgoing the use of a personal, ‘human’ tone. This, paired with its inability to handle the number of calls its hotline is receiving as it scrambles to increase the numbers in its team, worked to undermine the organizations few efforts to regain favor.

Although the brand is recalling its products of its own volition and is doing everything it can to move the conversation offline, it failed at almost every turn. Hot Pocket’s four-day silence over the issue lost them control on the conversation completely.

In all industries you need to be prepared to handle a crisis before it actually happens. This is especially true in any industry that has a direct link to the health and well-being of its consumers.

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… And particularly true when those consumers already joke about your products being pouches of mystery.

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