Commentary

Fixing Rep Of A Brand That's Too Big To Fail

Johnson & Johnson's handling of the cyanide-laced Tylenol crisis of 1982 is required reading for every business school marketing and public relations course. A bizarre and terrifying case of sabotage that ended up claiming the lives of seven Chicago residents, the Tylenol murders could have decimated the company. But an effective and compassionate public relations strategy saved J&J, and paved the way for its reputation as a reliable and respected brand. As recently as 2008, Johnson & Johnson topped Barron's list of most-respected companies. In PR circles, this is the stuff of legend.

Fast-forward to 2011, and the company's reputation has become anything but legendary. Over the past two years, Johnson & Johnson has recalled more than 200 million individual products, from over-the-counter meds to surgical sutures and syringes, costing more than $900 million in lost revenue. News that broke this week indicates that J&J has now agreed to pay $70 million to settle civil and criminal complaints of bribing doctors in Europe and paying kickbacks to the Iraqi government to illegally obtained business.

Most distressing is the company's PR response to these ongoing troubles. The same Johnson & Johnson that was so progressively out in front of the 1982 crisis is now paying consultants to buy questionable products from store shelves rather than institute a recall, and is positioning various product problems as isolated incidents related to conditions at the manufacturing plants, not corporate governance. Can consumers continue to trust a company that acts in these ways?

Too Big to Fail?

Yet, for all of its quality control problems and recent PR mishandling, Johnson & Johnson will likely weather this particular storm, and continue to be one of the foremost names in pharma and consumer products. In PR terms, it may be a brand that's simply too big to fail.

Proving itself as a company with its own crisis management creation myth (circa 1982) goes a long way toward explaining its resilience. Good, effective PR is in its DNA, and more importantly, lodged in the consciousness of its loyal consumers. Recent missteps aside, J&J will compose an appropriate response to its consumer-related challenges, and emerge from this string of recalls and product questionability as a company willing to dialogue with the public and address issues transparently. CEO William Weldon's response to the bribery settlement ("We ... have taken full responsibility for these actions") is a baby step in the right direction. The company's March announcement that the FDA will have expanded oversight of three of its subsidiary manufacturing plants is a bigger step.

We've Seen This Before

It's true that a brand that has staked so much on its reputation has much to lose in situations like the one J&J finds itself in. But it's also true that brands as large as J&J -- even ones without a similar PR aura -- are likely to survive such situations in today's public relations environment, particularly in relation to corporate corruption. Siemens, the global engineering conglomerate, paid record fines for bribery in 2008, and yet is still among the world's largest and most recognizable brands. Computer Associates underwent a similar corporate fraud investigation in 2004, and although that company's CEO pleaded guilty to federal charges, the brand itself is as strong as ever. And BP's 2010 Gulf of Mexico nightmare? It's almost as if it never happened.

PR and Today's Media

Granted, none of these crises were as acute as the 1982 cyanide-Tylenol crisis Johnson & Johnson faced -- and none made for quite as titillating a headline (not to say that corporate malfeasance, bribery and fraud are passé in the post-Enron, post-Madoff era, but ...). Both Siemens and Computer Associates are substantially more B2B-centric than Johnson 7 Johnson is, as well. So the situations are marginally different.

Thirty years ago we would be less likely to hear about J&J executives paying kickbacks to government officials in an unstable region of the world, but if we did it would be plastered on the front page of every major newspaper and at the top of all three networks' evening newscasts for weeks. Today, we hear about every allegation of fraud or shoddy manufacturing, but it's a below-the-fold story in the Times and somewhere after the Steve Jobs health report on MSNBC.

This cuts both ways. The lack of laser-like focus in the news media means that J&J has the opportunity to take a less-than-transparent approach. In 1982, J&J had to hit a PR home run just to stay in the game; today, it can just bunt the current crisis over and wait for someone else's really big scandal to clear the bases -- which could be as soon as tomorrow.

Johnson & Johnson, if it's smart, will not take this approach. It will reach back to its legacy of PR mastery to get ahead of the uncertainty it faces today. Maybe, like with Computer Associates, that will mean a well-publicized corporate reshuffling. Maybe, as with Siemens, it will mean a thorough examination of systemic problems and a tough commitment to resolving them.

Or maybe, as in 1982, it will mean a robust dialogue with the public about product safety and visible demonstrations of transparency.

However it happens, Johnson & Johnson will emerge from this crisis with an effective PR strategy to drive that emergence. It's too big a brand not to.

Tags: commentary, pr
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2 comments about "Fixing Rep Of A Brand That's Too Big To Fail ".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , April 19, 2011 at 10:24 a.m.

    Wonder how much J & J is paying to run away from the feds for paying kickbacks to the Iraqi government to illegally obtained business? There's more to this crime than ill gotten financial gains. This is so much a hot button that I sure will avoid this company and will be happy to spread the word. Time for the media to sink their teeth into this crap.

  2. Vanessa Horwell from ThinkInk Communications , April 19, 2011 at 8:31 p.m.

    Three words Paula.... will never happen. Think about the eco-system - media networks need big advertiser dollars. Just saying...