Zhu Zhu Hamsters and GoodGuides–when accuser becomes accused

December 10, 2009

In many if not most reputation crises there is an accuser and an accused. The media thrives on this because of the melodrama implied with the public good being the “maiden in distress” that the guys wearing the white hats are fighting for against the guys wearing the black hats. Round one almost always goes to the accuser because the media have an inherent interest in creating or conveying a dramatic story and that means someone or something must be at risk.

But the game is ultimately about credibility or who is to be believed. A winning strategy for the accused (black hat) is to turn the game around by accusations against the accuser and if successful the colors of the hats are switched. It all depends on whether the accuser is completely solid when it comes to credibility. This game (actually very serious business for those involved) has been played out to a T with the Zhu Zhu pets crisis.

GoodGuide, a consumer guide website with as far as I can tell, a very solid reputation, reported that Zhu Zhu pets were over the federal standards for tin and antimony. Big crisis for the company Cepia which manufactures the toys. No question about white hats and black hats.

Turns out GoodGuide was wrong in that they were using a different and apparently less stringent testing method than that required for the federal standards. The Consumer Product Safety Council verified that the pets met the federal standards. Now headlines (LA Times and US News) around the country are proclaiming “Zhu Zhu Pets are Safe.” And if you Google the related terms, unlike a couple of days ago, the biggest returns are proclaiming the safety.

Now it is GoodGuide that is offering a retraction, a very weak apology (we screwed up but really didn’t screw up too bad), and refusing comment in the news reports. Who has the black hat on now?

From Zhu Zhu’s position it is still a crisis coming at a most critical time for their sales. If they can keep the positive headlines going for a little while (personally, I think I’d advocate supporting that with some big ads showing the news reports), then it may actually turn out to their benefit in sales. Longer term, I can’t see how it can anything other than help them because they now have the added advantage of being victimized by someone supposedly speaking in the public interest who did them great harm.

As for GoodGuide, they had better start doing a lot better job than I see right now in dealing with this. A consumer guide service lives and dies on its credibility and it has been seriously, seriously damaged by this in my view. They havae to restore confidence. One thing it seems they must do is provide immediate assurance that they will now and forever more use the required evaluation criteria before coming out with their big headlines.

The consumers ultimately win in this. In part because I hope reporters and bloggers eager to jump in on the bad news story of another dangerous toy will stop and ask a question or two like, what testing criteria did you use, before they announce to the world that kids are going to die because of a toy like this. Second because it is a good thing for consumers to understand that the objective consumer guides are not necessarily perfect and without fault or bias themselves. Buyer beware, including when buying consumer advice.

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