How Toys “R” Us Tripped Up Its Online Crisis Strategy

My one year old is short on bibs. We threw them all away a few weeks ago when Toys “R” Us pulled about 160,000 vinyl bibs after high lead levels were found in two bibs from one supplier. As it turned out, our bibs weren’t at risk. But they came from Toys “R” Us, and that was reason enough to get them out of the house. Fast.

Other parents’ impressions of this retail giant have likely changed as a result of this PR nightmare. Toys “R” Us is not the only children’s retailer viewed as culpable for exposing kids to a major health risk. September has already seen lead paint exposure recalls by toy makers Fisher-Price and Mattel, and June saw a similar recall by Thomas the Tank Engine maker RC2.

What’s a multibillion-dollar corporation to do, aside from better regulating offshore production? Damage control. And these days, that must include the Web.

Heard a rumor about a recall, product malfunction, or other corporate debacle but failed to get details? Without question, you go online to learn more. This makes the Web the ideal platform for responding to issues and criticism that stand to damage a business.

In online PR, companies can use search engines to plead their cases to disheartened consumers. Specifically, they can launch a search advertising campaign centered on three things: clarifying facts, emphasizing devotion to customers, and driving traffic to the corporate site, thereby controlling information dissemination about the brand.

While researching this topic, I was baffled by Toys “R” Us’ inability to grasp the importance of a media buy focused on damage control. A Google search for “toys r us lead paint recall” returns 713,000 natural search results addressing the company’s lead paint recalls, many from independent blogs. You won’t find a Toys “R” Us search ad demonstrating the company’s eagerness to make things right.

Bear in mind search ads are a quick, inexpensive, effective way for a company to execute an online PR strategy during a crisis. The short lead time required to upload new ad copy to an existing campaign or even launch a search marketing effort from scratch means businesses in the thick of a controversy can respond to customer search queries almost in real time.

Toys “R” Us should take a cue from Mattel, which is currently advertising on the term “lead paint recall” with a message driving consumers to its corporate Web site’s safety section. Once there, they’re confronted with a powerful mission statement: “We take our promises seriously,” along with a list of recent recalls and the three-stage toy safety check the company has vowed to conduct. There’s even a video message from Mattel’s chairman and CEO describing the company’s increased safety efforts.

Mattel and Toys “R” Us are in similar situations. Their customers are discouraged and fearful of purchasing potentially harmful products. The images of the historically beloved brands are as tainted as those vinyl bibs. Yet the experience consumers have interacting with each online post-recall couldn’t be more diametric. While Mattel confronts the issue with a search ad campaign designed to display its zeal to confront and resolve the issue, its retail distributor appears to be cowering behind a lack of public response.

Worse still, Toys “R” Us has continued to run its standard paid search campaign throughout the media embroilment. A search for “babies r us lead paint” to uncover more about the subsidiary where the Toys “R” Us bibs were sold returns an ad for the Babies “R” Us official site, where you can “find a huge selection of baby products!” A huge selection of baby products that can cause learning problems, reduced intelligence, and hyperactivity in children? No thanks.

Most modern corporations invest in search ad buys. If they take a siloed approach to this marketing channel, they’ll miss out on an opportunity to shape their overall image when confronted by a PR problem. Whether media buys on search engines are made to address a troubling situation or highlight attributes of a business and its products, these buys are a key component of a comprehensive online PR effort.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy a lead paint testing kit.

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