The Bulldog Reporter, The Journal of Public Relations

 February 1, 2010

 Johnson & Johnson Stinks Up Its Reputation

By W.T. "Bill" McKibben

In 1983, a year after the Tylenol tragedy in Chicago, I was in that city looking forward to hearing the keynote speaker at a communications seminar. His name escapes me but his task a year earlier is burned in my memory. He was a high ranking C-Suite executive from Johnson & Johnson who had led the team J&J sent to Chicago to deal with people dying from tainted Tylenol.

By then our discipline and the general public had made J&J's handling of the tragic incident Legend. He opened his remarks describing his feelings. He said he felt ill as his plane descended into O'Hare, as he had the first time he came to deal with the tainted Tylenol issue and every time since. And then he gave us an inside view of the sequence of events from the first report linking Tylenol to the unfolding tragedy. From the beginning management at J&J had acted to protect people. Help those harmed, prevent additional harm, and search for the source.

You’ll note that "Fault" is conspicuous by its absence. J&J did not hesitate to help those damaged, or to suffer massive losses by immediately recalling a product that ultimately was shown to be harmless. Nor did they stop there. When their products returned to the market it was in sophisticated packaging to protect against future efforts to tamper with them. Before the Chicago incident Tylenol enjoyed about a third of the market, more than double its nearest rival. Even though Tylenol was then, as it is now, just a J&J brand name for acetaminophen, a compound with no patent protection, none of its competitors were able to take over its dominant share of market.

A year later when I was reliving the horror story through the eyes of this frontline player, J&J had already been rewarded for its response by a rebound in market share. They were soon back to a third or better of the market; a position now at serious risk. They are facing charges of using kickbacks to a nursing home Pharma provider to push their Alzheimer's drug to unsuspecting old folks. And, of dodging possible contamination reports for nearly two years before issuing the recall of foul smelling products across several J&J lines.

A company as trusted as J&J may come away not much harmed. They may retain their massive market share or most of it. But what if the latter should prove to be the case? How much over the next few years would the loss of a point, or two,, or three,,, cost J&J? And how vulnerable are they now to the slightest misstep?

It's important for them to find out what's causing the foul odor, both in their products and in their marketing practices. However, it is much more important to find out who in their midst is responsible for exposing their reputation to these potentially catastrophic issues. In both cases they need to remember their first duty is to serve and protect the public. Then they need to rid themselves of those who twisted the J&J culture and caused the stink before it permeates the entire organization.