Johnson & Johnson: Tarnishing the PR Gold Standard

The New York Times recently ran a piece on the smears and ostracism used in the medical industry to keep doctors from reporting faulty products, focusing on Johnson & Johnson and the lawsuits over its hip implant, the A.S.R. This report prompted me to repost a piece I wrote on J&J in 2010 marking its fall from grace.

Johnson & Johnson: Tarnishing the PR Gold Standard

Originally Posted May 10, 2010

Amid the multiple crises filling the media and PR blogs–BP and Goldman Sachs primary among them–one is particularly dismaying because it involves the company routinely lauded for setting the PR gold standard: Johnson & Johnson.

The company has recalled a broad range of over-the-counter children medicines due to contamination and/or excessive amounts of active ingredients. Compounding the issue is Johnson & Johnson’s slow response to acknowledge and correct problems. Per media accounts, the FDA has issued a “scathing” report on conditions at the J&J factory that produced the recalled products. As reported, the FDA met with the company in February to voice concerns and consumers had been complaining about dark specks found in medicines since April 2009.

This delayed reaction contrasts sharply with J&J’s bold steps in 1982 during the Tylenol tampering crisis. Several people died when they took Tylenol capsules that had been laced with cyanide. As the parent company of Tylenol manufacturer McNeil Consumer Products, Johnson & Johnson acted swiftly and took primary responsibility for the incident, even though it was quickly determined that no employees had caused the poisonings. The company recalled all products in question at a cost of $100 million, suspended Tylenol advertising, and ultimately redesigned the pills and packaging to deter future tampering. In his book Trust or Consequences, PR legend Al Golin cites J&J’s openness and honesty which protected the company’s reputation and Tylenol sales.

The latest commentary on J&J’s current crisis shows the company’s stock price holding steady and its reputation not suffering significant damage. Advertising Age describes “the halo” above J&J derived from its 1982 crisis management. However, the article chronicles the company’s growing list of woes encompassing product recalls and government investigations. It also mentions a thread on a pharmaceutical industry message board entitled “The Credo is Dead,” filled with observations that J&J is ignoring guiding principles set by former chairman Robert Wood Johnson nearly 70 years ago.

It’s true that J&J’s past achievements buoy today’s troubled organization. In PRNews, I comment on a similar state of affairs for Toyota (subscription required). The title of the article,” Toyota’s ‘Trust Bank’ Is Open for Business,” harkens to my reference of Al Golin’s “trust bank,” the reservoir of good will companies can tap during tough times if they have consistently done the right thing up to that point. Like Toyota, Johnson & Johnson is currently withdrawing from its trust bank. Thanks to the actions of giants in the past, the current J&J regime may be able to ride out their crises. What a shame they do so at the expense of the PR gold standard.

About Jason William Karpf

Author, Professor, Nonprofit Pro, Four-Time Jeopardy Champ
This entry was posted in Bad PR Examples, Public Relations and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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