NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Around 10 a.m. on May 6, an employee passing by a TV monitor in Procter & Gamble's Winton Hill complex in Cincinnati noticed a shot of Pampers Cruisers on CNN with the word "Dangerous?"It's hard to say whether that was the precise moment the flap over the product's new Dry Max escalated from Facebook flare-up to mainstream-media conflagration. But when the team monitoring and responding to the brand's growing number of social-media critics got wind of the alert, it seemed as if the mainstream crossover moment they feared had arrived.
That sinking feeling was confirmed when Bryan McCleary, external relations director for North American Baby Care at P&G, almost simultaneously learned that the Associated Press was working on a story about the Consumer Product Safety Commission investigating complaints from parents about diaper rashes from the Dry Max diapers. Once that hit the wires, he knew the issue would be on the radar of every local TV station in the country.
So it was that a team of P&G executives and their PR firm Paine sprang into action with a full-bore communications strategy executed in the 28 hours between the morning of Thursday May 6 and the afternoon of Friday May 7. In a rare bit of radical transparency, Pampers gave Advertising Age a behind-the-scenes glimpse of those crucial hours.
The reality is that P&G, while trying to play it cool publicly, has been focused fairly intently on the burgeoning blowup since late last year. "We've been having daily 7 a.m. conference calls among all the functions every morning, including weekends, about this since we got the first inkling," Jodi Allen, VP-North American baby care told Ad Age between one of two TV interviews she did May 7 with TV stations from Indianapolis and Columbus.
Any critics who think P&G isn't listening to the consumer complaints might be surprised to see how intently it is. Four or so employees are regularly stationed in the brand's listening post (a term Mr. McCleary said he preferred to "war room") monitoring and categorizing new Facebook posts and other social-media chatter. Ms. Allen, who used to read through verbatims from the brand's call center weekly, said she now does so daily.
If there's any cover-up or much subterfuge in P&G's strategy, it was hard to spot in the three-and-a-half hours Ad Age observed the team directly on May 7, or from other accounts of P&G's response. In fact, there was a lot of straight talk in its communication. "I would never have put my baby in these diapers if I thought there was a problem," Kerri Hailey, head of global product development for Pampers, said in a TV interview May 7.
As mainstream consumer media coverage ramped up on May 6, the company hastened to issue two statements it was working on, getting both out on PRNewswire and other channels by 4 p.m. -- this despite distraction from the unrelated and still largely unexplained plunge of up to 39% in P&G's stock price at one point that day.
Whereas the company's most recent communications on the matter acknowledged parents' concerns while stressing the product's safety, the company's new tact was to take a tougher tone. The new statement referred to social-media complaints of diaper rashes from Dry Max as "completely false rumors" from "a small group of parents," some of whom "have specifically sought to promote the myth that our product causes 'chemical burns.'"
Besides increasing the use of the word "Pampers" for the purpose of search-engine optimization (so it would pop up around searches for "diaper rash" and Pampers) and adding "Dry Max" to the first reference to clarify that the controversy didn't pertain to all Pampers diapers, P&G didn't make many changes to Ms. Allen's statement.
P&G also revised another statement by Kimberly Thompson, founder of the pediatric safety and risk group Kids Risk and adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, in which she accused social-media critics of "unnecessarily scaring parents." The change, suggested by a corporate attorney, was to move to the first paragraph a disclosure that Ms. Thompson works on P&G external advisory boards to comply with a corporate transparency policy.
The next step was to go on its own media offensive. P&G considered approaching the "Today Show" on May 6 about doing a segment, believing coverage was becoming inevitable and the NBC morning show might provide a favorable forum, Mr. McCleary said. At that point, the company decided additional exposure wasn't worth the potential for relatively favorable coverage.
Instead, the company granted its first two lengthy sets of interviews on the diaper-rash controversy to the Indianapolis and Columbus TV stations, in part on the belief the footage will make its way to CNN and other outlets, and in part based on Mr. McCleary's belief that both stations were planning fairly in-depth looks at the subject that included commentary from independent pediatricians.
"When the stations talk to the pediatricians, we tend to do pretty well," he said. But most coverage he described as "formulaic," often consisting of on-air complaints from parents and a statement from the company.
What really fueled media coverage, Ms. Allen said prior to one of her May 7 interviews, was around April 15 when critics of Dry Max started using the phrase "chemical burns" to describe the rashes. Now the company is focusing on noting that there are no documented cases of chemical burns from the diapers.
Balancing the risk that the tougher tone will further anger critics on Facebook is the fact that, as Mr. McCleary said, nothing the company has done so far has helped much there. The company heeded advice to engage critics, he said, which didn't help -- at least not within Facebook -- although a company comment on a Consumerist message section did seem to improve the tone of commentary there.
During a 10:30 a.m. meeting May 7, the Pampers team met with Paul Sagel, the technologist who was the lead inventor of Bounce dryer sheets in the 1970s, and who's now a semi-retired consultant with Encore, a group of fellow P&G retirees. In that meeting came one explanation for why so many people could be blaming Dry Max for diaper rashes.
When P&G launched Bounce with newspaper samples in 48 million homes, it knew the brand would be blamed for a lot of clothes-dryer fires, Mr. Sagel said. That's because, while its testing showed Bounce didn't cause dryer fires, the company knew there were 104,000 such fires every year in the U.S., or about 2,000 a week. So for every report from a local fire department or news outlet blaming Bounce for fires, it tried to dispatch a team to look into the issue and talk to the people involved. The complaints peaked in about three months, he said, or after use of the dryer sheets became more common.
"It's a natural human phenomenon to connect something that happens with something that's new," Ms. Allen said later in the day during a TV interview.
Dry Max is the biggest, newest thing in diapers right now, with a record national sampling program and no other major P&G or competitive initiatives in the market, so it's likely to get blamed.
At any given time, 250,000 U.S. babies have diaper rash, Ms. Allen said. But P&G has gotten only two reports for every million among the 2 billion Dry Max diapers it's sold so far. While it's not dispatching teams to every home that reports a rash, P&G is doing extensive follow-up calls when it gets complaints and inviting some parents to visit a pediatrician on the company's dime to explore the problems.
None have taken P&G up on that yet, but Ms. Hailey said that if they do, the company may invite one of the TV stations back for a follow-up visit. Despite spending considerable time on the controversy, Ms. Allen said she's also focused on the rest of the business, upstream product development and the positive. That includes seeing Pampers sales and share rise sharply since the full-scale national launch began, and repeat rates that exceeded her expectations.