It is really difficult for me to be critical of IKEA. I have been a loyal customer for over 40 years, shopping there both in Sweden and the U.S. IKEA's design, price point and functionality continue to attract me. It’s a day trip with Swedish food included.
I am half Swedish and married to a Swede, we live in Sweden two months out of every year. I have owned a Volvo for years and buy the car because of its stellar safety technology. My children always loved to go to IKEA — it was a family outing complete with many meatballs and tons of Swedish delicacies.
I want to support the country, yet IKEA’s mounting crisis with furniture tip-overs and dying or severely injured children troubles me greatly about the company, its leadership and corporate culture. How could a problem this severe be allowed to persist? The U.S. Consumers Product Safety Commission recently “doubled down” on what IKEA had to do to avert future injuries.

Three months ago I wrote an article in Nordstjernan about IKEA’s tip over problems (IKEA and furniture safety. They were facing two wrongful death suits filed against them for the deaths of young children crushed by unstable furniture. IKEA was the target of an investigation by the CPSP. In the original article I posed the possibility (based on a published academic crisis communications research study) that IKEA’s stellar reputation for corporate social responsibility might help them weather the adverse publicity storm (as long as they were proactive in averting the problem in the future).
Six months ago the original CPSC’s IKEA recall order was strange because no furniture was taken back by IKEA and they continued to sell the popular line of MALM dressers and chests of drawer. Instead, IKEA was allowed to embark on a furniture safety communications program and distribute widely that a free anchoring kit was available from IKEA. Their messages strongly noted that this furniture had to be anchored for it to be safe. The campaign was broad-based, involving traditional media, social media, their own website messages, catalogue inserts and instore material, plus store staff training to emphasize the need for anchoring. The emphasis seemed to be on the output of many messages to a general audience. No tracking data was mentioned e.g. number of kits requested. Using a guideline for effective corporate crisis communication called PANTCHEK* (www.finemanpr.com/crisis-checklist/), I judged IKEA’s messages to be weak on high-level leadership in the solution and as spokesperson. Another subpar dimension was the lack of concrete measures being taken to eliminate the problem.

ADVERTISEMENT
Volvo Overseas - the ultimate experience

The latest agreement with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission occurred after releasing evidence that six children had been killed in tip-over accidents. The core of the latest agreement is that IKEA would recall 29 million chests and dressers in the U.S.
At a news conference on June 28, 2016 CPSC officials demonstrated the tip-over threat of the popular MALM line of chests of drawers. The recall requirement was a crucial victory for consumer advocates in its yearlong effort to hold it accountable for a growing death toll of young children dating back to 1989. Elliot Kaye of the USCPSC issued a blunt warning to owners of the furniture included in the recall. “If you have one of these products, act immediately. It is simply too dangerous to have the furniture in your home unanchored, especially if you have children.” He also said that this not just an IKEA problem — it's a problem of the entire furniture making industry.
Lars Petersson, the president and chief executive of IKEA, said the furniture was never intended to be free-standing but rather secured to walls with straps, a step he called “an integral part of the assembly instructions.” Peterson also said “if you are assembling correctly, the product is actually a very safe product.” He declined to comment on the wrongful death suites being brought by families.
Another player involved in IKEA’s crisis is Alan Feldman, a lawyer who is representing three of the families of toddlers (all less than 3 years old) in lawsuits against IKEA. Feldman said he welcomed the recall, but wished it had been issued much sooner. These suits accused the company of knowing the risks of its furniture but failing to do anything about it. He said that it took multiple deaths and more than 70 injuries along with an unreported number of near-misses before IKEA was shamed into action.

So for six months IKEA was off and running with its own USCPSV-endorsed safety/anchoring campaign. What were the possible shortcomings of this campaign? There can be no other conclusion but to suggest that IKEA could not demonstrate to the USCPSC that their campaign was working, that the anchoring kits were ordered and installed. The warnings about tip-overs were not sent to specific buyers or households known to own MALM furniture. IKEA offered no ideas on what they would do in the future (e.g. enhanced furniture safety testing, better designs for safety, etc.). My own experience in ordering the anchoring kit from IKEA and simultaneously buying an anchoring kit on Amazon.com resulted with IKEA’s kit coming three months after making the order; Amazon’s kit came in four days.
What else could IKEA have done (immediately)? They could have created a top-level corporate position that reported directly to IKEA's CEO to create a multifaceted program impacting all areas of the company to make their furniture safer.

It did not seem that IKEA had a coordinated, centralized effort lead by a high level person — their efforts cut across corporate PR, store management, etc. Nothing was mentioned about current and redoubled efforts to assure IKEA furniture is designed and built for safety. It might be that safer furniture would equate to heavier, more stable furniture impacting the assemble-it-yourself process and the price point they could sell this safer furniture at. So be it. Creating an add-on heavier, more stable base for their light furniture might have worked. Saying that the solution requires everyone who owns MALM furniture to immediately anchor it is impractical and would not happen.
What are the consequences of the USCPSC current order? Now IKEA is under the gun with a much stiffer recall order. The popular MALM line has been discontinued. The recall programs will cost the company plenty in terms of refunds and handling recalled furniture. We are taking about 29 million units! Granted, most of these units will never be returned because they have been discarded or because of the inconvenience of bringing them back for a refund. Maybe even more serious is the reputational damage that IKEA's corporate image will take. This is a situation not unlike Volkswagen’s faking of emission results, but here no consumer injury of death was involved. Press coverage about the new recall will be great; articles about the new tougher recall order are already out there; IKEA's North American CEO made national television news (NBC, June 27, 2016) with a message about IKEA's response.

* PANTCHEK is a handy acronym to keep in mind when managing communications in a crisis —and not get caught with your pants down:
•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 right 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

If you have a Malm dresser:
call IKEA toll-free at 866-856-4532 or go to www.IKEA.USA.com/recallchestsanddressers or www.IKEA-USA.com and click on Product Recall for more information on how to receive a refund or free wall-anchoring repair kit.

Robert F. Dyer
Emeritus professor of marketing, George Washington University