Sample Case in Ethics and Communication Submitted on June 22, 2010 By Ken Derksen

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1 Sample Case in Ethics and Communication Submitted on June 22, 2010 By Ken Derksen ENGL 7705: Ethical Issues in Professional Communication Instructor: Kirk St. Amant

2 Derksen 1 Case Overview When considering a case that reflects a failure in communication and ethics, one just has to look back to the headlines a few weeks ago when Walmart removed a line of Hannah Montana jewelry from its shelves following an Associated Press story that made international headlines regarding high levels of cadmium found in the jewelry pieces (Pritchard, 2010). It is important to note that the reason this is a case of a failure in communications and ethics is because the Associated Press provided Walmart with an independent scientific report that revealed the findings of cadmium in the jewelry line two months earlier, and Walmart continued selling the products to unaware consumers until May when the Associated Press published its news story regarding the company s continued sales of the product line (Pritchard, 2010). Cadmium is a metal ore that can be used in the production of batteries, paint, plastic, and jewelry, and long term exposure, such as by sucking on or swallowing, can cause organ damage, kidney failure, and death (Kelley, Sargent, & Uno, 1999). In April, Walmart adopted a policy that mandated its suppliers to test toys and children s jewelry for cadmium; however, the Hannah Montana jewelry line was not tested because Walmart did not consider the jewelry line to be a children s product and states that the jewelry pieces were designed and marketed to older audiences. (Walmart, 2010). Following the Associated Press story, Walmart released an official statement announcing that it had pulled the jewelry line because it is possible that a few younger consumers may seek it out in stores and the company wanted to...investigate its compliance with our children s jewelry standard (Walmart, 2010). Communication & Ethical Issues Involved There are two main ethical issues that Walmart faced following the discovery of cadmium in the Hannah Montana jewelry line. The first dealt with how the retail giant should have responded to the Associated Press independent study in February regarding the cadmium findings. The second dealt with how the retailer s technical and professional communicators responded to the news story in the official Walmart statement in May. What Did Not Occur to Correct the Situation After receiving the Associated Press report, Walmart was faced with the ethical choice of whether it should pull the Hannah Montana products from store shelves and notify the public while it conducted its own investigation, or continue selling the items despite the potential health threat to children whose parents buy them the jewelry items. In this situation, Walmart chose the latter, demonstrating the first issue of failed communication and ethics in this case. Klein and Dawar (2004) state that recalls can create a product-harm crisis, or a situation where a once favorable customer perception about a particular product or brand is negatively impacted (p. 205). Although two years ago, Forbes.com reported that retail sales for Hannah Montana branded items were on task to become a billion dollar industry (Coster & Streib, 2008). In this particular case, Walmart does not suggest that protecting a popular brand from negative consumer perception was a factor in why the jewelry line was not pulled sooner. In fact, it is what Walmart does suggest in its official statement that leads to the retailer s second issue of failed communication and ethics. After the Associated Press news story was published, Walmart was faced with its next ethical issue, how to respond to the negative publicity caused by the international story. In this case, the technical and professional communicator(s) for Walmart were very careful in how they responded. The official Walmart statement never acknowledged the retailer s awareness of the earlier independent study of the jewelry line. The carefully crafted message instead emphasized that because the jewelry was marketed to older consumers there was no reason for Walmart to have had the items tested for cadmium or pulled off

3 Derksen 2 the shelves (Walmart,2010). Although this claim could be reinforced by Walmart s added response that the jewelry line was sold in ladies apparel as part of its marketing efforts to older consumers (Walmart, 2010), it is important to note that the Hannah Montana television programs and retail brands specifically market children and tweens, ages 9-14 (Walt Disney Company, 2007), which contradicts the Walmart statement. Walmart s failed communication and ethics is further exampled when the company downplayed the issue that children may have been exposed to cadmium from the jewelry by stating that it is possible that a few younger consumers may seek it [jewelry items] out in stores (Walmart, 2010). The technical and professional communicator(s) who wrote the statement used a very general term younger consumer rather than saying children and also used the term few, which could lead readers to believe that only a small number of younger consumers, or children, may have been actually been impacted by cadmium through the sale of the jewelry pieces. What Occurred to Correct the Situation Although Walmart waited two months, and only responded after making international headlines, it can be credited with pulling the Hannah Montana jewelry line off its shelves due to the potential cadmium threat (Walmart, 2010). Walmart can also be credited for adopting a policy in April, which applies the European standard for cadmium levels in toys, to its jewelry lines sold in stores (Walmart, 2010). Case Implications for Technical & Professional Communicators This case demonstrates what can happen when technical and professional communicators place the interests of the company ahead of the interests of the consumers. Walmart s carefully crafted statement not only downplayed the issue, but it also showed that the company took no responsibility or ownership of the issue. Much like a technical report, which predicted a rocket explosion due to an O-ring issue, that later became the smoking gun for revealing the cause of the Challenger explosion (Dombrowski, p. 136, 2000), Walmart was given an independent scientific report that also provided a clear warning to the retailer of the high levels of cadmium in the jewelry and the potential threat to children (Pritchard, 2010). Regardless of its communications claiming that the jewelry line was marketed to older audiences, had a child been fatally injured from long term exposure to cadmium in a jewelry item sold after Walmart received the independent report, the company would be at fault and at risk of litigation for continuing to sell the jewelry despite the potential threat to children. In testimony given to Congress regarding a growing number of toy recalls, it was recommended that companies importing goods to sell domestically need to be responsible for the quality and integrity of their suppliers (Teagarden, p. 10, 2007). One way to do this is for companies to adopt global standards to ensure safety compliance in all levels of their supply networks (Teagarden, p. 9, 2007). As mentioned earlier, Walmart did adopt global standards for its children s jewelry lines (Walmart, 2010), but the retailer still failed to take action or responsibility for the cadmium threat in the Hannah Montana line and for its suppliers that they purchased the jewelry items from. Technical and professional communicators for Walmart could have made this a successful case in communications and ethics had they insisted the products be pulled from the shelves while the company conducted its own investigation, all while keeping consumers informed. Even if the company failed to do this, the technical and professional communicators could have demonstrated in May some success in their communications and ethics had they responded clearly and openly that Walmart had become aware of the issue and was taking steps to resolve it and prevent the threat from happening again. Had these steps been taken, rather than those that actually were, this case would have been a clear example to technical and

4 Derksen 3 professional communicators of the value and importance for ethical and transparent communications by companies regarding potential threats to consumers.

5 Derksen 4 References Coster H. & Streib, L. (April 28, 2008). Who s minding Miley? Forbe.com. Retrieved June 13, 2010, from Dombrowski, P. (2000). Ethics in technical communication. Needham Heights, MA: Pearson Education. Kelley, C., Sargent, D., & Uno, J. (1999). Cadmium therapeutic agents. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 5(4) Retrieved June 12, 2010, from n&ei=mwsetlzydsp- 8Abqq_D_Cw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8&ved=0CE8Q6AEwBw#v=onepage &q=cadmium%20poisoning&f=false Klein, J. & Dawar, N. (2004). Corporate social responsibility and consumers' attributions and brand evaluations in a product-harm crisis. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 21(3) Retrieved June 3, 2010, from Science Direct database. 4D0NJJ9-1- 5&_cdi=5877&_user=634873&_pii=S &_orig=browse&_coverDate=09%2F0 1%2F2004&_sk= &view=c&wchp=dGLbVlbzSkWb&md5=400a072c311211fb2ab3f5bd4729cdfb&ie=/sdarticle.pdf Pritchard, J. (May 19, 2010). Walmart's Miley Cyrus jewelry contains cadmium. Associated Press. Retrieved June 10, 2010, from Teagarden, M. (2007). Protecting children from lead tainted imports. Testimony to the U.S. Congress. Retrieved June 12, 2010, from Walmart (May 19, 2010). Walmart statement on media reports regarding cadmium in children s products. Press Release. Retrieved June 12, 2010, from Walt Disney Company (June 19, 2007). Disney consumer products continues strong growth at retail. Press Release. Retrieved June 12, 2010, from

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