Things have worsened dramatically since this OPED was published in August 2006. Bausch & Lomb has paid a horrific price for the ethical shortcomings of its CEO and the culture he engendered. A more detailed outline of the situation as it stood in the spring of 2007 can be found in Chapter Seven of Play Nice, Make Money.

Bulldog Reporter                                                                                                  Bausch & Lomb                                                                                                         Swallowing the Hook!

By: W.T. "Bill" McKibben

If Bausch & Lomb thinks they are “Off The Hook,” they are either delusional or whistling through the graveyard. The Centers for Disease Control conclusions published in the Journal of the American Medical Association are far from giving them any “reputation victory.” Even the hometown newspaper piece quoted does not help that much. As the Bulldog report indicated, while the CDC did not find any contaminants in B&L’s production facilities, they did conclude that the outbreak of eye infections that was centered on users of two B&L products "may have contributed" to fungal infection in certain instances due to their unique properties.

The major conclusion of the CDC study, according to its chief author, is to confirm that contact lens wearers should not use ReNu with MoistureLoc. B&L officials themselves previously highlighted MoistureLoc's formula as a potential problem, especially in instances when consumers fail to follow prescribed hygiene practices.

And in those last eleven words lie the pitfall that has perhaps irreparably damaged Bausch & Lomb. Blame it on the victim. Even if that were the case -and the CDC clearly does not lean in that direction- it’s a dumb response. It led to an inexcusable delay in issuing a recall. While B&L fiddled for months, their brand was being stomped into the ground.

There is one and only one inescapable rule when a product goes sour in the marketplace. At the first hint of a problem, recall the product. A rule that is doubly important when the public health is concerned. In this case a disease, Fusarium,  that can cause a range of problems including blindness. Don’t listen to the lawyers, don’t listen to the bean counters, don’t wait for internal investigations, run- do not walk, to your logistics people and stop all shipments. Have your marketing people contact every customer and pull the product off the shelves.

Call in the media. Tell them everything you know and everything you are doing. Offer refunds to consumers for product they return to your retailers. Urge people who suspect that they have symptoms to seek medical treatment. Offer to pay for treatment. In this case, there were only a couple hundred cases of Fusarium worldwide.

It’s not just a case of saving your bacon, it’s about doing the right thing. How could a company built on improving vision hesitate when there is even a suspicion that one of their products could be causing eye damage? What could be worse? No one is saying B&L set out to hurt anyone. They simply did not act when they first knew there could be a problem.

They issued a series of statements cautioning users but did not do a recall until May 2006. When did they know they had a problem?  Even if they didn’t have a hint until they issued the first cautions in early 2006, they still waited months to do what they should have done minutes after the alarms started going off. Tracking the press releases posted on their website on this subject is a study in denial.

Tragically they apparently had the key to redemption at hand. According to Ben Rand’s piece in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, “In a statement issued Tuesday (August 22nd), the company said the CDC's study would be helpful in developing new solutions.” 

If history (read Johnson & Johnson, Chicago, 1982) teaches our discipline anything, it teaches us what to do in this kind of situation regardless of motivation, self-interest or genuine regard for the public. If B&L’s Chairman and CEO, Ronald Zarrella, had ordered the actions recommended above and gone to the media immediately, his company would be on the road to recovery today instead of reacting to more bad press.

He could have used what they learned about “developing new solutions” to create new products and be restoring the $100 million a year the product associated with Fusarium contributed to their 2005 sales. Instead, he is facing lost business and a host of trial lawyers. More important, his company could truly lay claim to the phrase they offer at every opportunity: “Bausch & Lomb is the eye health company, dedicated to perfecting vision and enhancing life for consumers around the world.”

Bill McKibben is the Senior Partner of the Great Lakes Group, a communications consulting practice based in Buffalo, New York.

Reprinted with permission of the Bulldog Reporter’s Daily ‘Dog. Copyright  2006 by Infocom Group.