Toy Shopper Dismay at Christmas Shows Crisis Preparation Vital, Says PR Expert in Licensing Book Magazine

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Crisis public relations expert Brian Dobson of Dobson Communications says, "Preparing for crisis can help avert it. Many toy recalls dominating the news might have been avoided or better handled if firms were more adequately prepared for issues that can take on crisis proportions."

Shoppers buying toys for children awaiting Santa this Christmas Eve are discontented and suspicion about quality due to a string of product recalls that underscores the need for toy companies and all consumer product marketers to prepare for crisis, said Brian Dobson, President of Dobson Communications.

"Preparing for crisis can help avert it," said the crisis public relations expert. "Many of the toy recalls that dominated the news probably could have been avoided or better handled if firms were more adequately prepared for issues that can take on crisis proportions."

In The Licensing Book, a top trade publication in the children's product licensing and merchandising industry, Dobson wrote, "As major toymakers recalled toys and accessories, public trust began to shatter and children's product companies scrambled into damage control mode. Mattel put a public spotlight on quality control issues and that light turned to a laser beam when Spin Master recalled Aqua Dots in North America and the once respected toy industry was rocked by parental and regulatory reactions worldwide."

"During the second half of the year consumers heard news of one toy recall after another," Dobson noted. Mattel recalled millions of toys, most with defectively designed small magnets that children could swallow, or painted with high levels of banned leaded paint, including its iconic Barbie brand. Another company, RC2, recalled Thomas the Tank Engine wooden trains tainted with leaded paint. Canada's Spin Master recalled Aqua Dots due to a so called date-rape like substance on its toy. As Christmas neared, U.S. Customs agents announced seizure of recalled Aqua Dots at ports in Virginia and Georgia.

"The public, familiar with bad corporate news, was shocked since children's safety was involved," he said. Dobson has managed public relations in a variety of major crises, ranging from price fixing allegations to product tampering and plant closings to consumer backlash among other issues for global companies as well as smaller firms.

In the magazine article headlined "Crisis Preparedness: A Must In Global Business," Dobson notes, "The toy industry wasn't ready for crisis when Mattel changed public perceptions announcing recalls due to banned leaded paint use and loose magnets. Spin Master, recalling Aqua Dots bead-making toys after several children were hospitalized in comas after ingesting beads that apparently contained a chemical that converts into a powerful 'date rape' drug when ingested, gave further support to the public perception that quality control is lacking at big toy companies."

Dobson, who headed public relations at a Fortune 50 global company before forming Dobson Communications, advised toy and other companies to "form a Crisis Committee with clout and get company-wide input but limit spokespeople to the CEO or head of PR, among other steps."

A former financial journalist with Reuters and Dow Jones, Dobson said, "Adaptability is essential. Media messages should be concise and convey concern with action. Reporters find inconsistencies, so be on message from mission statements to news releases. Use print, TV, radio and the Internet to communicate proactively and limit need to clarify erroneous reports."

Dobson, who also co-founded BusinessFilmStudios.com and CrisisPROnline.com, said, "Companies should prepare and circulate questions and answers for input. The process identifies problem areas and leads to actions. Perhaps a Q&A format would have given rise to toy testing issues, leaded paint bans and questions about materials, as well as about union issues and child labor in outsource factories among other issues."

Dobson said, "Crisis preparedness sharpens management focus and costs less than crisis management. In the proprietary Dobson Communications Crisis Arc, we have seen that in business you get what you inspect, not expect and that one crisis opens the door to the next. So, in time of peace prepare for war, or crisis."

Dobson, located in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and New York City, said, "Bottom line, shoppers feel the marketer of a product is responsible, start to finish, for the quality of toys sold to the public. The same holds true for a wide range of industries, from food to apparel and auto makers to tire companies and so on."

"Consistency is vital during crisis," said Dobson. Mattel at first cited poor quality control in China as the primary source of its recall problems but later recanted and apologized to China, claiming responsibility rests with Mattel.

"Global reaction to Mattel recalls included the European Commission reviewing product safety regulations, Brazil banning Mattel and U.S. legislators conducting hearings and calling for changes," Dobson said. Recently, California brought a lawsuit against 20 companies for selling toys with illegal amounts of leadm including Fisher-Price, KB Toys, Kmart, Marvel, Mattel, RC2, Sears, Target, Toys R Us, Wal-Mart and Costco.

"Responsibility for product quality," according to Dobson, takes in a variety of levels. "The marketer is responsible for total quality, but the retailer of goods also is held responsible by consumers, especially when recalls are on a voluntary basis, and at the heart of the responsibility is the brand owner, who selects licensees to convey their iconic brands to a loyal and awaiting public."

Dobson explained, "Incidents of product recalls in the toy business are not new and have occurred routinely in past years when products sometimes slip through the quality control net. However, the latest round of recalls drew media and public focus. Iconic brand names, such as Barbie and Dora the Explorer, are top-of-mind now in the crisis and big retailers, such as Wal-Mart (WMT), Target (TGT) and Toys R Us initiated toy testing of their own to protect their customers, and their market shares. Disney (DIS) and Nickelodeon, part of the Viacom (VIA) MTV Network, were among children's entertainment property owners that also started testing to protect their brand names and avoid public association with quality problems.

For information about Brian Dobson and Dobson Communications visit DobsonPR.com, CrisisPROnline.com or BusinessFilmStudios.com.

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