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More than a PR crisis

Thermomix burns are a matter of consumer safety, not just a media blunder

CHOICE appears a lot in the media. In one recent 24-hour period, we generated over 300 headlines on one issue alone – what we've dubbed "Thermoburn".

Key findings of report

When we're taking on a big company or a whole industry, the numbers are often stacked against us, with our media spokesperson Tom Godfrey up against whole armies of media spinners working on the other side.

Rather than feeling daunted, we find this kind of fun. When we win the public debate on an issue, it reinforces that debates can be won based on the strength of the argument, rather than how much money you have to spend.

And the money that's spent is often staggering. There's a whole industry of 'issues and crisis management' consultants that specialise in getting big business out of sticky media situations.

Take Powell Tate, the public affairs business that Thermomix manufacturer Vorwerk turned to when we started to highlight consumer reports of safety concerns with the TM31 all-in-one kitchen appliance.

Perhaps Vorwerk was swayed by the sales pitch on the Powell Tate website. Examples of the firm's success include helping clients being investigated by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, assisting a client affected by the 'Panama Papers' affair and helping a global security company to handle negative media about a death in custody.

Yep, Vorwerk called in a company that spruiks its credentials in handling media about corruption allegations, international tax scandals and deaths in detention.

If they thought this would help the situation, they could not have been more wrong.

For a start, it told us that they thought they had a crisis on their hands – exactly what we were hoping to achieve to get them to pay attention.

Secondly, it confirmed our fears that Vorwerk wasn't really interested in addressing consumers' concerns. It seemed to see the problems as a PR issue that could be handled through slick media work, rather than a serious safety issue that needed to be addressed to prevent further harm.

Perhaps the staff of Powell Tate (which is a global firm based in Washington DC) should read the advice of Lance Morgan, the firm's 'Chief Communications Strategist', on how to escape a crisis with your reputation intact. He says the best path is "if you make a mistake, fix it, apologise … and take steps to make it right for those who were affected and prevent it happening again".

If Vorwerk had taken these simple steps when Thermomix customers first started reporting burns and other safety concerns, CHOICE would never have been out in the media on this issue, and there would have been no crisis to manage.

Instead, many of the people who've contacted us to speak about their experiences are still waiting for a proper response.

CHOICE has been tracking what appears to be one of the more notable household product failures in recent years – the Thermomix TM31. Read all about the events that led us to file a mass incident report with the ACCC.