Bausch & Lomb ReNu: Eyecare Scare

Bausch & Lomb has a problem here in Southeast Asia. Their product has been linked to cases of fungal eye infections by the Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH), which issued an advisory to users in the country to stop using Bausch & Lomb ReNu multi-purpose contact lens solutions.The story also gained traction in several media outlets (Channel News Asia, Optician Journal UK) across several countries (Brunei; China – Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai; Taiwan; Pakistan). In fact, Google News already records over 50 news items on the Bausch & Lomb scandal.

Popular Malaysian blogger, Jeff Ooi, chronicled the developement of this case in his blog .

What I find most damaging for Bausch & Lomb is this:

A report in Borneo Bulletin (Feb 21) quoted an eyecare outlet manager in Bandar Seri Begawan as saying products sold in Brunei mostly came from Malaysia.

However, in The Star report dated Feb 25, Bausch & Lomb South-East Asia managing director Foo Eng Chuan was quoted as saying that his company would not suspend the sales of ReNu multi-purpose solution in Malaysia. Reason: “There had been no report of corneal infection in Malaysia so far.” Quote and unquote Bausch & Lomb’s MD in The Star.

He also revealed, in The Star report, that Bausch and Lomb had voluntarily suspended sales of the product in Hong Kong and Singapore “to help the health ministries investigate the cause of the infection”.

(Source: Jeff Ooi’s Screenshots)

According to the Taipei Times, Taiwan, Bausch & Lomb will also not be withdrawing their product from the shelves.

But, isn’t that a recipe for a great Public Relations disaster?

Whenever the public’s interest and well-being is circumspect, organizations must always, always err on the side of caution. It is likely that Bausch & Lomb was holding out and “hoping for the best” pending the outcome of the investigations. Perhaps they were concerned about “not behaving guiltily,” prevailing on being “innocent until proven guilty.”

Unfortunately, the “right to remain silent” only works in law, not public relations. By delaying their responses and appearing to drag their feet, Bausch & Lomb have unwittingly communicated to their consumers that they are more concerned with themselves, than their consumers.

It’s basically Crisis Communications 101.

In a Crisis, there are two virtues: Timeliness and Transparency.

Timeliness means that time is of the essence. Any delay, or perceived delay, and the organization will be seen as being unconcerned – whether about their consumers or the situation. Worse, they could be perceived as stone-walling. Organizations need to quickly get their act in order and quickly communicate with their audiences (consumers, media, authorities, etc.). They need to assemble their Crisis Communication Plan (though this should have been done earlier) and execute it. Their designated spokespersons need to be at the forefront, continually communicated with the public. They should also quickly set up points-of-contact/information where the public can get more information or, if necessary, to make claims for their grievances.

Transparency is not easy, but it is highly appreciated by the public. In a situation like this, the public is already put on guard. Bad news is already out in the open and it is spreading quickly. The public will be very wary and highly unappreciative (to say the least!) of any spin (or perceived spin) on the matter – especially one that gravely concerns their personal health (blindness is quite a serious matter, after all). So, the organization needs to take steps to ensure that they are seen to be open and honest about the situation. They must be perceived to be acting to find a solution to the problem, not stone-walling or being in denial.

If anything, the organization and its leadership might even consider erring on the side of caution… that is to say, while not admitting fault, they are humble enough to work as though they are at fault (it’s a fine line and delicate balance, I know). So, Bausch & Lomb in Malaysia and Taiwan should voluntarily withdraw their products to facilitate investigations, instead of being forced to by the Government. Doing so may cause a momentary drop in product sales, but the public will be more reassured later when Bausch & Lomb take steps to rebuild their brand image. I believe the public will be more forgiving to Bausch & Lomb if they behave in a transparent and trustworthy manner. The public has long memories only when they get screwed.

It will be interesting to see what Bausch & Lomb Malaysia will do now, since the Government has already ordered it to immediately withdraw its ReNu product. I wish they withdrew their product earlier when they had the chance and took steps to reassure me that they were doing their best to get to the bottom of this situation. After all, being willingly apologetic is always much better than being forced to apologize.

Unfortunately, because of their feet-dragging and seeming unconcern, they have even lost me as a customer. I’ll be looking for a new contact-lens care solution next time.

By the way, Jeff Ooi, thanks for the heads-up on the issue and also for the part you played in spurring our Government to act decisively.

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