The Honest Company Provides a Lesson on Handling a Crisis

Just a few weeks ago I blogged about United Airlines as an example of how a company can spectacularly mishandle an unfolding crisis, generating cycles of negative coverage and damaging the company’s bottom line. Today, I want to shine a light on a company – the Honest Company – that just last week found itself in the midst of a product recall, but executed a smart, swift and an on-point response strategy to stem a potential crisis.

The Honest Company is a consumer goods company, focused primarily on baby products. Launched in 2011, the company tapped into the burgeoning “ethical consumer” marketplace, offering a range of non-toxic products – everything from diapers to laundry detergent – at affordable prices. The company has experienced meteoric growth and was valued at $1.7 billion as of August 2015.

On May 12, the company communicated to their customers that it was voluntarily recalling certain lots of baby wipes due to the possible presence of mold.

Product recalls are one of the more challenging areas of crisis communications. When the product in question is recalled because of potential health concerns, however tenuous, and the end-users are children, the potential for the story to escalate into a full-blown crisis is magnified.

So how did the company respond to this potentially explosive situation in a way that managed to limit negative fallout?

The Honest Company proactively communicated the information via a video message sent directly to their customers. In the video, the company’s co-founder and chief purpose officer, Christopher Gavigan, laid out in detail what happened, how it was discovered, what products were impacted and how the company planned to ensure it didn’t happen again.

  • Throughout the video, Gavigan avoids “corporate speak” and instead talks earnestly and in plain language directly to customers. From the outset, he reminds the audience that the company was founded on the principals of honesty and transparency, and implies that in sharing the details of this product defect they are adhering to those very principals.

  • He provides a physical example of what the defective product looks like and offers reassurances that the type of mold found does not have known adverse health implications, noting that similar mold can develop on the skin of an orange you buy in a grocery store.

  • He builds empathy with the audience, speaking about his own role as a father and his understanding of the importance of ensuring the safety and health of children.

  • He outlines the actions the company is taking to ensure the issue doesn’t happen again.

  • He apologizes.

The approach taken by the company was exactly the right fit for its audience. Anything that presents a potential health issue to children is a massive area of concern for parents and likely to provoke an emotional response. Responding to parents’ concerns in a way that is authentic and personal will resonate in a much stronger way.

Also, where the issue of health is concerned, more detail rather than less is optimal. Many parents are also very active on social media like parent forums and blogs that can be a breeding ground for opinions and confident assertions – both accurate and inaccurate. Gavigan provides substantial detail in the video, and the physical demonstration of what the defective product looked like was a smart way of stemming hysteria and ensuring accurate information was circulated.

Finally, he provided clear and actionable steps on how the company would prevent the situation from recurring. Affordable, organic baby consumer products are not in plentiful supply. It is likely the Honest Company customers were keen to keep using the product line, since there are few alternatives; however, they needed assurance of its safety. Gavigan gave them that reassurance.

Of course, the story has been thoroughly scrutinized by the media. After all, the company’s co-founder is Jessica Alba, the actress. But the cycle of coverage has been relatively contained and the tone factual, two factors that are considered a definite win when companies face a crisis.

It is all too easy to shine a spotlight on crisis communications when it goes wrong, but companies would do well to learn some lessons from those who face a crisis and emerge with their brand intact.