Social media is alerting shoppers to faulty products.

Social media is alerting shoppers to faulty products. Photo: Louie Douvis

Dodgy materials, danger of choking, brakes may fail: product recalls can mean headlines for all the wrong reasons.

While admitting that something you sold wasn't up-to-scratch is rarely a good look, image-savvy companies are turning to social media to help disseminate information, dispel rumours and mitigate damage to their corporate image.

A decade ago, a recall meant a combination of mainstream media advertisements, hastily printed notices at the supermarket check-out and a mass mail-out to the customer database.

Fast-forward to 2012 and Facebook and Twitter have emerged as key tools for identifying and informing customers who've bought products that have later flunked the quality test.

Aon crisis manager Ian Davidson said their usefulness was two-fold. An insurance broker specialising in risk management, Aon has provided recall support to dozens of companies in the food and beverage sector whose products have been subjected to contamination or tampering.

With its facility to disseminate information instantly, Twitter can be used to fire details of a recall into the community, Davidson said.

Once customers have been alerted to the problem, both Twitter and Facebook can be deployed to provide fast follow-up information to those affected – collectively and individually.

All to the good, as far as the company's image is concerned, Davidson believes.

"You look like a good corporate citizen," he said.

"[Social media] allows you to get the message out there as quickly as possible and look clear and transparent in the process. And it shows you as willing to offer a fix."

It can also eliminate some of the donkey work that was an inescapable part of the recall process in the past.

Previously, dedicated helplines could provide the same set of responses to the same anxious questions thousands of times, as customers heard the news and raced to the phone, said James Griffin, a director of social media consultancy SR7.

Putting the answers on Facebook and providing direct follow-up to customers who requested further information was more efficient, Griffin said, and could help dispel inaccurate rumours and negative sentiments before they went viral.

“There can be a lot of emotion around product recalls – monitoring the conversation can be a useful way for the company to know when to provide input and to correct misconceptions,” Griffin said.

“They can be actively involved in saying what the issue is.”

Companies that fail to do this are playing Russian roulette with their brand says Stacey Tomasoni, general manager of Datacom, a vendor which provides ICT support to companies in crisis.

Left to chat among themselves in cyberspace without education or moderation, customers were capable of reaching “quite scary” conclusions, particularly if the recalled item posed health and safety risks, Tomasoni said.

“You need to defuse the situation so people are reassured and won't want to take it further,” she said.

Some companies still made the mistake of treating social media as a static channel of communication – a signboard rather than a two-way electronic broadcast – and did not use it to provide real-time information and support, Tomasoni said.

There were 422 recalls in the 2012 financial year, resulting in the return of more than 2.5 million items, according the Australian Competition and Consumer Authority, which oversees the process.

Of those, 174 were generated by the car, boat and bicycle sectors, 32 concerned health and beauty products and 69 were food and grocery related.

The regulator itself has made social media an integral part of its communication process.

It's been broadcasting details of recalls via Twitter since May 2010 and has had a product safety Facebook page, which is updated daily, since December 2011.

An ACCC spokesperson said the agency encouraged suppliers to use a range of communication strategies, including social media, to maximise consumer awareness and participation in the recall.