Wearing a dark suit and standing before a nondescript backdrop, Bausch & Lomb chief executive Ronald Zarrella looks into the camera and soberly lays it on the line.
"The health and safety of your eyes has always been our first priority. That's why we've stopped selling one of our ReNu contact lens solutions: MoistureLoc," Zarrella says, speaking slowly and deliberately during the commercial, which recently began airing nationwide. "Despite exhaustive testing, we're unable to eliminate the possibility of a link to a rare eye infection."
Quick and conciliatory damage control is considered key to countering corporate catastrophes. Modern examples run the gamut from Martha Stewart showcasing recipes she picked up in prison to soften her image as she reclaimed her decorating empire to Exxon's shutting down communications after its Alaskan oil spill in 1989, which exacerbated bad impressions.
The health care industry is particularly sensitive turf because product failures and shortcomings can affect the quality, even the length, of people's lives.
In 2004, Merck & Co. was criticized for its reluctance to recall Vioxx after it was found that the arthritis painkiller could increase the risk for blood clot-related heart attacks and strokes for long-term users. Conversely, Johnson & Johnson's rapid pulling of Tylenol from store shelves amid a tampering scare in 1982 earned it public and industry praise, and a generation later is still considered the gold standard in corporate damage control.
Bausch & Lomb's response has been viewed as somewhere in the middle -- both complicated and facilitated by modern technology. Rumors about Bausch & Lomb have multiplied on the Internet and television and print media have taken the company to task.
The company turned to all three outlets to spread its counter-message. It has run print ads in national and local newspapers along with the TV commercial in which Zarrella is the plaintive -- if unglamorous -- star. It also launched an online information center and sent out hundreds of thousands of e-mail messages to customers.
Barbara Puffer, a public relations professional from Connecticut, has worn contact lenses for 40 years and uses ReNu products. She got an e-mail from the company in mid-May and almost immediately posted it to an online communications group, under the heading "Hot news ... I have my eye on a great PR case unfolding now." Bausch & Lomb must "have some savvy PR folks cranking out the message," she wrote.
"The cost to do nothing would have been far greater for their reputation as a good health care provider," said Puffer, who teaches an online course on the topic at University of Maryland University College. "Had they not immediately worked on this containment and recovery, it could have affected other products."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this month during a continuing investigation that MoistureLoc was the likely cause of an increase in a fungal eye disease that has led to vision loss and corneal transplants. By the time of the announcement, Bausch and Lomb was already in full communications crisis mode to protect the 153-year-old business.
The Food and Drug Administration issued a finding May 15 that claimed the Rochester, N.Y., company did not properly review MoistureLoc after it was on the market and did not notify the agency of reported infections in a timely manner, which the company disputes.
The business is also under fire for waiting until April 13 to take MoistureLoc off store shelves after the FDA announced on April 10 that it was looking into the product as a cause of the infections.
In an e-mail interview, Bausch & Lomb spokeswoman Margaret Graham said the company stopped shipments of MoistureLoc immediately, but "within two business days" learned there was confusion in the market about what products were safe to use. The company then formally removed MoistureLoc from retailers and alerted consumers to not use it.
"We regret any confusion caused during those two days and if there was something we could go back and change, it would be eliminating that confusion from the start, on April 10," Graham wrote.
According to the latest data from the CDC, there are about 130 confirmed cases of Fusarium keratitis -- the infection associated with MoistureLoc -- in Puerto Rico and 26 states, including two cases in Maryland. Nearly 40 of those infected have had to undergo corneal transplants to save their vision.
Since deciding to permanently take MoistureLoc off the market as of May 15, the same day Zarrella's commercial appeared, Bausch and Lomb's full attention has turned toward rebuilding its reputation.
"I don't want to go into the specifics of our marketing plan for competitive considerations ... but you can be sure that we're going to do what it takes to rebuild this brand and regain confidence in our products," Zarrella said during a conference call May 15.