“Cheerio” to General Mills’ Transparency

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Published October 17, 2015, 1:10 p.m.
By Sally Immel.

Transparency, transparency, transparency: We’ve heard this word a thousand times because it’s the first public relations lesson in the book. Ever since our first PR class, we were taught to always tell the truth — no matter what.

In today’s world of open communication through personal blogs and forums, transparency is only as effective as how quickly you respond to a crisis.

General Mills can attest to that when it had to recall more than 1.8 million boxes of supposedly gluten-free Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios on Monday, Oct. 5. After the recall, General Mills didn’t waste any time communicating to its consumers. It posted a link to a press release on the company’s corporate home page, and a Cheerios executive penned a blog about the situation.

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Photo Courtesy of JL! | Flickr

“As president of General Mills’ cereal business, I am embarrassed and truly sorry to announce today that we are recalling boxes of Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios produced on several dates at our Lodi, California facility,” stated Jim Murphy, SVP and president of General Mills’ cereal division.

On social media, General Mills posted a photo to Facebook that spurred a lot of comments. Instead of copying and pasting variations of a general response, General Mills personally replied to each comment — reassuring concerned mothers and

the gluten-free community.

Successfully instilling trust in consumers, General Mills’ recall and transparency campaign should serve as a model for brands preparing a crisis communication plan.

In a Newsweek article, Matthew Philips spoke with Gene Grabowski, chair of crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communications, about the Toyota recall of faulty accelerators.

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Photo Courtesy of C x 2 | Flickr

Grabowski explained that with forums that create rumors, recalling isn’t as simple as the Tylenol recall in 1982. The biggest mistake that Toyota made in its recall was its poor timeliness in communicating to the consumer. Toyota representatives did an interview on the “Today Show,” but Grabowski said they should have done the interview a week before and communicated to consumers directly.

“This is an age of transparency and you have to join it,” said Grabowski. “Consumers can accept that you’re not perfect. What they cannot accept is that you’re not being transparent, because that then feeds thought of willful deception and cover-ups,” he continued.

According to Forbes.com the three T’s of a great PR experience are truth, trust and transparency. Saying that you have done something wrong is a sign of strength and leadership that will help a company recover more quickly.

6 Comments

  1. Sarah Anne J

    This is a great post, Sally. Transparency, as you mentioned, is a make-or-break facet of any company’s reaction to a crisis. Intrigued by the mention of social media, I looked into some of Cheerios’ interactions on Facebook. Sure enough, a woman named Rebecca Thacher Aiken responded with immense praise for the company and the approach it took to the situation.

    “Mistakes happen sometimes, but never have I seen a company publicize it so widely and be so responsive in their attempts to make it right,” said Aiken, a 12-year sufferer of celiac disease.

    This comment led to a ripple of positive responses about the company and brand. These responses include one from Cheerios thanking Aiken for her support. The positive reaction on Facebook serves as evidence that General Mills is handling the situation incredibly well and is earning customer trust by maintaining a high level of transparency.

    Aiken, R.T. (2015, October 5). I’ve been diagnosed with Celiac’s for 12 years, and devouring Cheerios since they went GF. (Facebook post). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/Cheerios/photos/a.202570674825.126608.162006779825/10153649008064826/?type=3

    Reply

  2. Reid Shearer

    Well written, Sally. I couldn’t agree with you more that transparency is essential for businesses everywhere. As you mentioned in your post, truth, trust and transparency are the keys to a good PR experience. In addition to Cheerios and General Mills, Volkswagen also had a scandal a few months ago. However, it did not act with transparency or honesty. Instead, company representatives buried their actions under the rug. As a result, Volkswagen had to recall eight million diesel vehicles in just Europe. Furthermore, Volkswagen will never have the credibility that it once had, making it harder for customers trust the company. In all cases, it is wise to be transparent.

    Reply

  3. Caroline Tilton

    I could not agree more! As a consumer you know that no corporation is perfect, but its credibility is truly tested in the face of a scandal. I am actually more impressed with Cheerios after the recall and the way the company handled it than I was before the incident. The fact that it wasted no time responding and not only accepted full responsibility for the problem, but also took the time to personally communicate with individual customers says a lot about General Mills. I am now more trusting of the brand because I know that the product I am getting is quality, and if it is not, the organization is going to be truthful in telling me so. I believe this recall could have really hurt the organization, but transparency and customer service saved its reputation. General Mills just set the example on how to handle a PR nightmare and turn it into an advantage. Business Insider also wrote a story on nine companies that saved a scandal through transparency. You can find it here: http://www.businessinsider.com/pr-disasters-crisis-management-2011-5?op=1

    Reply

  4. Hannah MacInnis

    This is very good read. Transparency in communication is one of the most important traits for a company to possess. When operating such a large company, such a General Mills, one must make sure that there is trust from the consumer. Though it was a bad circumstance, General Mills handled the situation the way it should have. Lying about a situation, especially something health related such as gluten free products, makes things worse for the company and the consumer. A liability issue is something that can also come into play when producing food products. General Mills also did a great job in the decision to spend time responding to each comment on Facebook “reassuring concerned mothers and the gluten-free community.” Trust is key when running a company; General Mills made sure that trust was not tempered in this situation and I commend it for that.

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  5. Emily Etscheid

    Great post, Sally! I love the part about companies being able to own up to their faults. In order to gain trust in today’s world of rumors it is important to stay truthful even if it is something against your favor. Judging from other companies’ mistakes, I believe that ones such as General Mills offer an excellent example of what a PR company should do in a case of emergency. When the public feels like they can trust what the company is telling them, they are more likely to comply with it in future business. If I had found out that a company had lied to the public about a mistake, it would be tough for me and many others to be able to trust that company again. This is a very important point that every PR professional should remember in their work and personal lives. Telling the truth will always work out better in your favor than when a lie breaks loose. Especially in today’s world of fast-spreading information, the few companies that choose to be transparent will be the ones that people worldwide will look up to.

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  6. Kalli Calvin

    This was a great article on something that is very relevant in today’s society. What happened with General Mills (GM) created a huge scare and safety hazard within its consumer community. Even though GM messed up, the way that the company handled the situation was an amazing display of public relations. I feel that if a company makes a mistake it should address the mistake as soon as it possibly can. General Mills addressed its customers by answering questions and reassuring their concerns. The later a company waits to address an issue the more customers it loses due to a break in trust. The way GM addressed its mistake should make future companies PR teams taking note.

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