What Did J&J Know, When Did They Know It, and What Did They Do About It?
12/18/18 – – A jury recently awarded $4.6 billion to 22 plaintiffs claiming that their ovarian cancer was caused by daily use of Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower products. Last week, J&J, which is appealing the decision and fighting scores of similar claims, was accused in a Reuters article of hiding evidence dating back as far as 1957 that the talc in its Baby Powder contained the carcinogen asbestos. By the time the closing bell rang at the New York Stock Exchange on the day the explosive Reuters story ran, shares of J&J were down 10 percent, erasing $40 billion in market cap.
J&J is navigating what by any measure is a tornadic reputational storm. They’ve been here before. The company’s historic 1982 product recall in response to deadly tampering with Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules is still being studied as a model of responsible (if not perfect) crisis response.
The challenge J&J is facing today, however, may be tougher. A lot tougher.
In Chapter 5 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient — Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Culpability and Crisis: Proclaiming Villains and Victims”), we focus on the three questions journalists ask to determine if a company can be blamed for the harm and/or wrongdoing about which they’re reporting: What did they know? When did they know it? What did they do about it?
The headline of the December 14, 2018, Reuters investigation offers damning answers to the first two questions: “Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its Baby Powder.” In answer to the third, Reuters charges that J&J “kept that information from regulators and the public,” marketing its talc products to consumers with assurances of safety and purity — the cornerstones of the venerable J&J brand.
While there was intense pressure on J&J back in 1982 to do the right thing, it was difficult to blame the company for the actions of a random killer poisoning Tylenol on drugstore shelves. Yes, the product’s packaging could have been more tamperproof (one of the first things J&J and the entire over-the-counter drug industry addressed after the recall), but J&J was perceived to be among the victims of a deranged individual, who clearly was the villain.
In today’s Baby Powder crisis — if the Reuters findings are accurate — J&J is the villain.
So, what is J&J doing to turn this around? First, let’s assume the company attempted without success to get its position into the Reuters story. (J&J insists that Reuters, “repeatedly refused to meet with our representatives to review the facts and refused to incorporate much of the material we provided them.”) Soon after the Reuters exposé went live, J&J issued a statement through its digital communication channels confidently asserting:
“The Reuters article is one-sided, false and inflammatory. Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder is safe and asbestos-free. Studies of more than 100,000 men and women show that talc does not cause cancer or asbestos-related disease. Thousands of independent tests by regulators and the world’s leading labs prove our baby powder has never contained asbestos.”
At the end of the statement, readers are directed to a website, factsabouttalc.com, for more information. And on the Monday after the Friday Reuters story broke, J&J full-page advertisements with the headlines “Science. Not sensationalism,” “Your questions deserve answers,” and “What we know” began appearing in such publications as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal as well as multiple digital platforms, directing readers to the J&J website.
Going to school on someone else’s crisis can be an effective, painless way to improve your ability to prevent and if necessary respond to a reputational storm. J&J is fighting back, aggressively providing their own answers to the questions of what they knew, when they knew it and what they did about it. It will be fascinating to watch how this plays out in the media and the courts.