Abbott Nutrition and the Food and Drug Administration have agreed on a plan to reopen the company’s manufacturing plant in Sturgis, Michigan, which has been shut down due to an investigation into a bacterial outbreak linked to the infant formula, Similac. 

But the baby-formula shortage crisis is far from over. Abbott said it will be a few weeks before production resumes and several weeks more before Similac gets to store shelves. Adding to the pain for parents, an executive from another baby-formula manufacturer told Reuters this month that the shortage will likely extend through the rest of 2022 because of supply-chain issues. 

In other words, parents’ worries, anxieties and fear are running high, and formula brands aren’t doing nearly enough to alleviate their concerns, nor develop and effectively communicate temporary solutions, say healthcare PR pros — including a number of new moms. 

“There’s a great opportunity for them to connect and engage, to stand out as a trusted resource, and right now it’s being missed, unfortunately,” says Jenn Melendez, VP at Spectrum Science. “I was really surprised at some of the missteps on behalf of Similac.”

Those errors began with the recall announcement in mid-February, when Melendez was formula-feeding her second son, then nine months old, with the brand’s product. She expected to quickly hear from the maker of the formula as an active member of the Similac rewards club, formerly known as StrongMoms. 

“I was understandably concerned and looking for answers and alternative options [to Similac],” says Melendez. 

However, no such email came until five days after the recall. 

Overall, she is finding the company to be a lacking source of info. “The best information I was able to gather came from the influencer community and specifically @theformulamom on Instagram,” she says. 

The handle belongs to Mallory Whitmore, a certified infant-feeding technician, with more than 179,000 followers. 

“She posted incredibly helpful resources to understand the recall, including how to know if your supply was affected,” says Melendez, who adds that @theformulamom “continues to share useful information.”

That advice includes “connecting parents via Facebook formula-exchange groups, where people can actually share unopened cans of formula with other families,” explains Melendez. “My youngest son is starting to transition away from formula, and we’re already planning to send our unopened cans to a family in need.” 

She is hoping to see manufacturer brands tap into new mommy influencers. 

“There are so many opportunities for these formula manufacturers to be stepping up and being more proactive in the types of support they provide,” she says. “Why not partner with some of these influencers we turn to for support, host an Instagram Live to answer questions or provide more empathetic resources for moms who may already be feeling overwhelmed and confused about what to do next?”

Her colleague, Spectrum SVP Amanda Peck, who is using formula to feed her nine-month old son, notes manufacturers need to go where their customers are.

“When trust is tested during something like a recall, it makes sense that moms would turn to the community of peers that they rely on for comfort, advice and support,” she says. “These manufacturers would greatly benefit from listening and engaging with the key influencers and communities that their customers are already turning to.”  

Carolyn Crawford, a new mom and account supervisor at Clyde Group, says she is also seeing “little in terms of proactive communications from manufacturers or retailers.”

What she did see was “press releases and prepared statements, given in response to queries from reporters in articles covering the shortage.” But talking about plans to ramp up production, with many shelves still cleared out, fails to address the incredible anxiety and confusion about what parents should do in the meantime. 

“They are frantically scouring grocery-store shelves, desperately posting on social media or turning to friends and family to find formula,” says Crawford. “In a situation like this, tone is everything in communications, and something as important as feeding your child is on the line, stiff, formal statements don’t do much to assuage your immediate concerns. Parents want reassurance that they’ll be able to feed their children.”

Like Melendez, Crawford found better comms and a clear showing of compassion from Instagram moms who have been empowering families to donate formula to those in dire need. 

“I would have liked to see companies reach out to these influencers to help amplify these efforts or maybe have come up with this idea in the first place,” says Crawford. “It would have been a great opportunity for them to show they really care, and are willing to help figure out a solution when they came up short on something so important.” 

What else would have gone a long way? Something as simple as “a warm, compassionate, personal message that they understand the hardship and are committed to making things right,” she says. 

Looking ahead, Crawford says manufacturers “should commit to proactively addressing any steps taken to resolve the crisis and communicate what they plan to do to mitigate future issues.” 

PRWeek reached out to Similac’s comms team, but did not hear back. It also reached out to other baby-formula manufacturers. 

Reckitt Benckiser, the manufacturers of baby-formula brand Enfamil, hired Edelman. It appears to be posting more actively on its social channels about the shortage than most formula brands. 

The messaging has included posts from Alayne Gatto, a registered dietician with Enfamil and certified lactation counselor on changing baby formulas, as well as Melissa Emory, senior manager of Enfamil’s consumer resource center on tips for searching for formula. 

It has also been directing customers to its store locator to check inventory. 

Reckitt president of global nutrition Patrick Sly also did an exclusive interview with CBS News this week. “It shouldn’t happen,” he said of the shortage. “We won’t rest until we get every baby in this country the formula that they need.” 

In terms of the next steps, Carrie Jones, principal at JPA Health, says manufacturers need to regain the trust of their customers. She says media coverage of the formula recall and shortage was minimal at first, but “the intensity of the crisis was visible from day one on social channels.” 

However, manufacturers weren’t adding their voices to those conversations or tapping into the activism that was growing among new moms who were formula-feeding their babies. 

“Given how the communications leading up to the extreme shortage for baby formula was handled, manufacturers have a long road ahead of them to build trust with parents, consumer advocates and the federal government,” Jones says. She adds that it is paramount that they “communicate with kindness.” 

“Recent media coverage shines light on how many families are struggling to feed their children, especially infants born prematurely and socially disadvantaged families,” she says. “By demonstrating cultural competence, we can create a safe place to talk about the role formula plays in caring for infants. Not all moms can breastfeed, and we shouldn’t stigmatize this population.” 

Gil Bashe, managing partner and chair of global health and purpose at Finn Partners, says manufacturers need to speak directly to parents with compassion and understanding about the here and now, not six or two months from now. 

“Players have spoken to the science and timelines,” he says. “Now it has become mission critical for them to speak to parents’ anxiety, because this is a very heightened level of anxiety. It’s about a child’s well-being and potential survival. The stakes are much higher.”

He suggests the industry come together, in collaboration rather than competition, to talk about those anxieties and how they are filling the gaps while production ramps back up. 

“I think we are going to see more of that collaboration,” adds Bashe.

This article originally appeared on PRWeek US.