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One was written by a PR professional and the other by an engineer. The fact that one description is benign at best and the other should fill you with dread suggests that the vehicle recall system in the UK may itself be in need of a recall.

Is the recall system in need of a recall?

Car manufacturers announce product recalls each year, some more than once. Some of the brands involved may not be a surprise but some are as they are consistently rated highly for their reliability. The modern car is a very complex piece of machinery and all it needs is a missed widget or slightly deformed component for a recall to result.

The ‘wheels may misalign’ is a perfect example of how some manufacturers choose to describe the reason for the recall in a way so as not to cause too much alarm and to try to minimise damage to the brand. The VOSA website is full of such cautionary understatements but in an effort to minimise distress the opposite effect may result.

I wouldn’t be too relaxed if I received a letter advising me of a recall for any of the following reasons – ‘clutch and gear selection may be lost’, ‘engine may cut out’, ‘brakes may fail’, ‘fuel may leak’, ‘directional control may be lost’ and my favourite, ‘steering wheel may detach’!

The product recall process for vehicles is not a simple one. Once a fault is reported it needs to be determined if it is a one-off occurrence or if there have been numerous incidents, if it is safety related and finally if it is confined to just one market or affects all markets where the car is sold. This takes time.

The PR and automotive relationship

A solution to the problem then needs to be developed, ‘signed-off’ by engineers and then if necessary sufficient new parts need to be made to fix all cars affected. That whole process can take anything between four to nine months.

Communicating a recall can be a tricky business. It’s no good announcing a recall and then having to tell customers they will have to wait a further nine months before it can be fixed especially if a potential fire may be involved or wheels may misalign. Waiting until all new parts are at dealers ready for customers to arrive and then announcing a recall is also fraught with danger primarily because of the immediate impact of social media.

Vauxhall had to respond before it was ready when images of burning Zafiras appeared all over social media. Instead of being in control and being able to manage the timing of the recall message the Vauxhall PR department was forced into reacting when it was not ready to do so. In an ideal world it would have used the tried and tested PR communication ‘tool’ of the 3Rs – regret, reason and remedy.

So is the recall system as robust as it can be or does it need its own recall?

Today’s vehicle recalls are structured, monitored and have to comply with strict guidelines, a great improvement over the ‘wild west’ or ‘head in the sand’ approach employed by some manufacturers in years gone by.

The recall system isn’t perfect but does work because a high percentage of cars recalled are inspected and rectified, much more than with any other consumer product. It shows that vehicle manufacturers are, by and large, on top of the situation even if it may take several months between identifying a problem and providing a solution.

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