Don’t Toy Around—Hit Back
Every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the biggest gift-buying period for consumer companies, “safety reports” on toys are issued. Sometimes it’s blogs or consumer newsletters that list 20 (or sometimes even 50 or 100) companies that allegedly have safety complaints filed against them or are producing dangerous toys. And, of course, the media jumps on these issues because they are looking for “toy stories” at this time of year. It’s well-done and smart PR.
But slow down—things aren’t always as they seem. Not every “safety report” is indeed an honest broker. One day in the first week of December, I got a call from a producer at one of the major national morning shows who wanted us to comment on one of these so-called safety reports. A newsletter had said our client, a family-owned toy company, had produced a toy considered to be a choking hazard. We didn’t know anything about the report until the producer called and alerted us to it.
We called our client, who was also in the dark. We quickly discovered that, not so coincidently, this newsletter had issued its “safety alert report” just one week after our client declined to place a full-page ad in a sister publication, as it had for the past few years.Amazingly brazen and nothing short of extortion. Pure bounty hunting: if you don’t pay me a fee, you will be deemed a safety hazard. The client was calling literally every 15 minutes: “What do we do, Ronn? What do we do? This could destroy business during our most important selling season. Retailers will pull my products off shelves and I have millions of dollars of product in the warehouse.” We called the television producer who said, “No problem—issue a statement and we’ll air it in response to the claims.” In those circumstances, who really cares about the company’s denial? If anything airs, it’s a horrible loss.
We used our relationships at the network to move up the food chain, sharing documentation, facts, and details about our client’s toys and what we viewed as the watch list’s extortion campaign, along with the original statement we’d produced one minute before the producer’s supposed deadline (but 12 hours before the story aired). The statement read in part: “As you are aware, all of our products meet strict U.S. government requirements. We have consistently and always adhered to strict testing of all of our products and never once had any product recalls. Your story is a witch hunt conducted in coordination with an organization that operates under false pretenses of giving ‘awards.”
In a situation like this, if the story ran with our client involved, even with their statement included, it would be a loss. Our client was being hijacked. In this situation, we were lucky to deal with a major national news outlet that has excellent fact checkers and producers. The story did run, and of the companies mentioned on the phony list, six were cited in the story and our client wasn’t one of them. Victory.Apparently we had shared enough details about how the product was made; the care; the lack of complaints; the repeated solicitations from this newsletter for client money; and when combined with the fact that the producers trusted and knew us, they concluded it would be best not to mention our client. And while the newsletter itself wasn’t invalidated and may still be running the same scam, that wasn’t our fight—our fight was making sure our client wasn’t included in the on-air story, and it wasn’t. So for us, it was a major victory.