After IKEA became involved in a highly publicized, wrongful death lawsuit concerning a child’s death resulting from a tip-over of its furniture in 2014, I visited IKEA to buy bedroom furniture. I interacted with an extremely well trained salesperson, who, even though he was not prompted to do so, noted that anchoring is a must. The salesperson offered several free anchoring kits. Safety and anchoring messages are posted on in-store signs, in the IKEA catalogue and on its website, and in phone messages when one calls a customer assistance number. IKEA communications efforts, called the “Secure It” campaign, also involve press releases, social media, You Tube videos, paid ads in targeted consumer publications, and emails to Ikea Family members and its large consumer data base.

Corporate crises call for effective communication to shelter or restore a company’s reputation. The use of corporate social responsibility (CSR) claims may provide an effective tool to counter the negative impact of a crisis, but knowledge about its effectiveness is scarce and lacking in studies that consider CSR communication during crises.

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IKEA and the U.S. Product Safety Commission
"Ask a Swedish executive about his worst legal fears when it comes to the U.S. market, and he will say product liability lawsuits. Ask an American executive about the Swedish market, and he will either say lifetime employment or unions on the board. Both these scenarios are scary, but luckily not scary enough to stop companies from crossing the Atlantic and prospering abroad. For sure Swedish companies are highly internationalized and are ready to face most legal aspects of being global. But even for a thoroughly globalized company like IKEA, foreign cultures and legal traditions do pose challenges. Swedes are not as litigious as Americans. In Sweden a lawsuit is usually seen as the last resort after working with an ombudsman or regulatory official, while in America a lawsuit is often seen as a tool in the process of negotiations.” (Currents, Swedish American Chamber of Commerce, summer 2006)

Most accidents and injuries occur at home. Many of these accidents involve furniture or household objects. This includes unsafe toys, issues with flammability, improperly assembled furniture and lightweight, unstable bookshelves or tall chests of drawers that are not properly anchored to a wall. Do-it-yourselfers may skip the safety aspects and skip over the instructions about anchoring.

Sweden’s IKEA is, of course, a huge manufacturer and retailer of furniture and household goods all over the world. North America is a primary market with 42 of its 361 stores around the world. IKEA’s products are purchased by people of all ages, genders, marital situations — walk through any IKEA and you will see many young families, often with children.

It is worth mentioning that IKEA is a huge advocate of Corporate Social Responsibility. CSR advocates for three overarching performance benchmarks in a corporation: people, profit and the planet. "People" refers to a firm’s role as an employer and a generator of customer satisfaction; "profit" is understood and without which a firm cannot exist in the long term; "planet" is building a supply chain and distribution network with an emphasis on sustainability including sourcing raw materials, product manufacturing, use and disposal.

For many years IKEA has been frequently mentioned in academic and business publications as a model CSR firm; annually it publishes a CSR scorecard report on itself, reporting its own annual performance against a variety of metrics. It has won a variety of awards by business and NGO organizations for its CSR initiatives (CSR Wire, PRNews Online, Global Award by Global Forum for Swedish companies).

Of importance to IKEA’s current furniture safety crisis is a finding by an academic research study suggesting there is a strong connection between how long a firm has had an active CSR program and the type of stakeholder response that crisis communications receive. More specifically, the use of CSR claims in crisis communications is more effective for companies with a long CSR history than those with a short CSR history, and consumer skepticism about claims lies at the heart of this phenomenon. (Vanhame and Grobben, Journal of Business Ethics, 2008)

The entity for regulating product safety in America is the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). They receive reports about dangerous products and link injury data to specific situations and causes. The complaints may lead to a recall order and could require companies to undertake product modification or create communications directed to current and prospective product owners. The CPSC also publicizes its own findings and recalls about products it deems unsafe, requiring modification or removal from the market.

Clearly the USPSC is a regulatory agency that has clout in the U.S. marketplace. If one goes online and searches the USPSC website, a number of CPSC directives show up for IKEA product recalls during a specific time period (see www.cpsc.gov). For example, if you ran a search for 2015, a large number of hits for IKEA recalls and safety warnings will come up. These range from a recall of crib mattresses for flammability and child entrapment issues to a recent announcement by IKEA offering free wall anchoring repair kits for Malm and other chests and dressers needed because of tip-over hazards.

The tip-over crisis: A very, very big issue
On July 15, 2015 IKEA and the CPSC made an announcement recalling 27 million chest and drawer sets (7 million Malm and 20 million other models) due to safety hazards. IKEA has acknowledged that certain furniture pieces may not be safe if they remain free-standing. In February and June 2014, prior to the recall announcement, two children died and others were injured due to drawer sets tipping over and pinning children underneath. One of the deaths triggered a lawsuit by a mother from West Chester, Pennsylvania alleging wrongful death and negligence. Her son died in 2014 after he climbed a 136-pound Malm chest and it tipped over pinning him against his bed. A year elapsed between the deaths and the recall announcement. The lawsuit charged that the IKEA chest purchased by the plaintiffs came with no hardware to secure it to the wall, nor warnings or instructions to do so.

To be fair, it needs to be pointed out that falling dressers, chests of drawers and other furniture is a major hazard that involves the entire furniture industry, not just IKEA. The CPSC estimates that more than 43,000 consumers are injured in tip-over accidents each year, with more than 25,000 of those injuries to children under the age of 18. In 2011, for example, furniture and television set tip-over accidents resulted in 49 deaths and 38,000 hospital visits.

The CPSC chairman Elliot Kaye asked the entire furniture industry to make more stable furniture; although low prices are highly valued, CPSC would like IKEA and other furniture retailers to focus more on offering stable furniture even if that means slightly higher prices. Another nonprofit group, the American Home Furnishings Alliance, believes the safety of home furnishing can be improved through innovations in materials and technology. It has encouraged IKEA and similar furniture retailers to invest in research and development efforts to find ways to decrease furniture tip over accidents.

A major mandate for crisis communications
Even though IKEA is highly respected and a leader in the CSR area, it has had to embark on a vast crisis communications program. Although the IKEA case is considered a recall, consumers are being asked not to return the furniture to the store. Instead, IKEA is using another remedy to make the product safer.

Nevertheless, IKEA has had to create a major internal and external communications program related to furniture safety in general, and tip-overs in particular. Its goal is to notify buyers of the availability of a free furniture wall anchoring kit. The kit can be obtained free by visiting an IKEA store, registering at www.IKEA-USA.com/saferhomestogether, or calling toll-free (888) 966-4532.

In addition, the company is taking major steps to prevent other tragedies like this from happening in the future. IKEA’s store staff has been educated to talk to all wardrobe, shelving and chest of drawers customers about the critical importance of furniture anchoring.

IKEA already has an ongoing campaign in place which addresses general home safety issues, and has been posting new information about the anchoring kits to the campaign’s page on its website. Scott Wolfson, communications director for the CPSC stated: “We do not want people to put this (low) on their to-do list. This is so critically important that they need to contact IKEA, order the kit and install it.”

IKEA’s performance in a crisis communications situation
Although huge oil companies, auto manufacturers and politicians alike have been issued very poor marks for their crisis management and communications practices, has IKEA done any better? Has IKEA’s stellar reputation for its long-time CSR efforts enabled it to forge a more credible and impactful crisis communications program surrounding its furniture’s safety? As previously noted, an academic research study has found that the longer a firm has been strongly engaged across the organization in CSR, the better their crisis communications messages are received by their stakeholders. This bodes well for a continuation of IKEA’s strong corporate image if they continue to be forthright, continue their consumer education efforts, and track the results of their communications program.

Although there are a large number of "crisis communications checklists,” an interesting one is summarized below:

PANTCHEK is an acronym to keep in mind when managing communications in a crisis — and not getting caught with your pants down. (www.finemanpr.com/crisis-checklist/)
• Public welfare is the first priority
• Assemble the facts. Once they are verified, announce all bad news at once
• No blame, no speculation, no repetition of negative charges or questions
• Tell your side of the story or take responsibility
• Care and concern for those affected — express it sincerely and at the outset
• High-level organization spokesperson — let the public see the crisis has top-level attention
• Ensure that it will not happen again with a solid plan that will generate confidence
• Keep a separate plan for moving daily business ahead

Of course, the grade someone gives IKEA is a very personal judgment call and there is no shortage of public criticisms of IKEA in terms of how it handles customer service communications (see http://www.corporateofficeheadquarters.com and specific comments about tip-overs). This author (a marketing professor who focuses on public policy, marketing strategy and communications) is prone to give the firm fairly good preliminary marks on the PANTCHEK criteria.

IKEA appears to come up short on two factors: 1) there is an absence of a high level person as IKEA’s spokesperson who will demonstrate that IKEA has very senior people focused on the safety issues; 2) IKEA is vague about new directions the firm will take to make safety a primary factor in designing, testing and merchandising more safe, stable furniture, particularly regarding tip overs and children. Realistically, it is too early to issue a final grade. One has to see if IKEA treats its safety communications program not as a sprint but rather a marathon with a multimedia approach and heavy message repetition. Further, IKEA’s program needs to be scored not just on what they are sending out to stakeholders. The highest grade can only be earned if the program works! How many kits were actually delivered and installed before and after the initiation of the campaign? Only time will tell.

Dr. Robert F. Dyer, professor emeritus of marketing
George Washington University

The IKEA U.S. response to our article: "IKEA U.S. addresses product safety concerns" - letter from the IKEA U.S. president