fitbit recall social crisis
News of Force Recall Nowhere on Fitbit's Homepage

Being a brand-side pro, I’m always hesitant to dissect crisis situation from the outside. Seeing as I have weathered many a storm working for three large brands, when prognosticators and so-called experts were quick to jump on the companies I worked for, it always rubbed me the wrong way.

In this case, with Fitbit and their voluntary recall and subsequent 86-ing of their top new fitness tracker, the Force, I’m looking at it from two very different points of view – one as a communications and marketing professional, and the other as a loyal customer and brand advocate. It’s the latter that has motivated me to draft this post.

First, let’s give Fitbit credit where it is due. Even though the skin irritation issue is affecting a rather small portion of their customer base, the San Francisco company made the decision to not only recall the device, but to also pull it from the market, most likely permanently.  That’s the right thing – and a brave thing – to do for a startup that has been the darling of the fitness industry the last few years. It takes a lot of guts (and I guess much prodding from the legal set) to pull your hottest product from the shelves and refund every customer who purchased one. CEO James Park posted a letter – hidden in the product page – well-publicized via media outlets that are covering the contact dermatitis story with increasing interest. Kudos to Park and Fitbit for doing the right thing, and quickly, but how else are they doing?

A visit to the Fitbit website makes it hard to find any mention of the issue. A large-scale recall of this nature deserves some front-page love but there is none. Furthermore, the sites Community board is abuzz with the news and with questions yet there isn’t much engagement nor a blog post talking through the ins and outs of how the recall/refund program will work.

Perusing the social channels for the company shows a complete outage. Questions, frustrations and other posts to the company’s Facebook page and to its Twitter handle (even its support handle) go unanswered – including several from me. Once again, we see how the promise of timely crisis communications through social channels is lost on a brand. Those of us who use a Fitbit are usually rabid brand advocates. But in our time of need, the company is either in the legal bunker or never planned for an issue where they would actually have to talk to their customers.

Clearly Fitbit understood the issue, even if it was impacting less than two-percent of its customer base, could be disastrous for their business in a very competitive space. They did the right thing on the recall but continue to fail when it comes to talking directly to customers.

Here are the three ways they could improve the situation immediately, and keep fanatical advocates like me in their big tent:

  1. Start Responding in Social: While the company has set up a dedicated 800 number (which I’ve yet to be able to get through on) and a website to register (where people are also having trouble navigating), they’re completely ignoring their customers in social channels. I’ve run social and social support and understand the problem of scalability during a crisis. In this case Fitbit is showing absolutely no desire to engage. People are losing trust and this isn’t helping. Auto responses or scripted interactions to specific questions are not helping.
  2. Leverage The Community: Fitbit has a great support and enthusiast community. The message board on the company’s website is busy, active and includes company moderators. In reviewing customer posts about the Force issue, and questions to help customers make informed choices, the moderators are silent. Again, reeking of legal jurisprudence. These are the times that communities like this are most valuable. Fitbit is wasting that trust and good will. Get your people in there responding to let your customers know that you’re there with them.
  3. Over Communicate – Visibly: When you hit the Fitbit website, images and information on the Force are still front and center, but information on the recall and instructions on how to get a refund are not. In fact, you must hunt for the right area of the site to send back your Force. Again, you just recalled your entire inventory of a product. You must communicate openly, often and in plain sight. Fitbit clearly isn’t doing this. 

These situations for any public relations, social media or corporate executive are never easy. You have to balance the desire to openly communicate with your customers with the legal peril you find yourself in. In the era of instant communications, social connections, and empowered and advocate-based consumers, to climb into your crisis bunker could perhaps bury your brand.

(image: screenshot / Fitbit.com)