Johnson & Johnson is marshaling its resources to defend itself against claims that it has known for decades that its baby powder contains traces of asbestos.
After a sell-off resulted in its worst single-day loss in 16 years on December 14, CEO Alex Gorsky told media the company is leveraging digital, social, and print channels in an “aggressive campaign.” Refuting the insinuation that J&J hid anything from the public, the effort excoriates “sensationalism” about talc. It also funnels the public to a dedicated website, FactsAboutTalc.com, via promoted tweets, full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, an online video, an interview with CNBC, and a series of statements.
“J&J has decided to power its way through this controversy using its PR and marketing might to forcefully muscle messages across,” says Bob Pickard, principal of Signal Leadership Communication.
Over the past two years, J&J has been sued by ovarian cancer survivors and their loved ones, who said their use of its baby powder made them ill. Last month, it lost a motion to overturn a $4.7 billion verdict against it.
The crisis reached a fever pitch on December 14, following an article in Reuters alleging that J&J knew there were small amounts of asbestos in its talc baby powder as far back as 1971, citing company memos, internal reports, and other material. The New York Times also posted its own report about J&J concerns about baby powder product safety.
A J&J representative didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Bill Nowling, MD and partner of Lambert, Edwards & Associates, writes via email that “J&J’s lesson for other brands is to not back down from fight with the media when you believe their facts and the reporting are wrong.”
“You have to respond immediately and with enough force,” Nowling adds. “There are many holes in the reporting from Reuters and the Times, and J&J pressured all of them with some very convincing contextual information. If J&J waited another day to take the action it did, it would have been too late.”
A Reuters spokesperson says it stands by its reporting.
Former J&J comms executive Bill Nielsen, who served as its chief PR and corporate comms officer until his 2004 retirement, says he “completely endorses” the company’s actions to defend its management. However, Nielsen acknowledges the steep climb J&J must make in presenting its case to the public, calling FactsAboutTalc.com “an appropriate measure that’s very much needed.”
“A lot of consumers just feel like anything from corporate is not to be believed, and that’s tough to deal with,” he says. “The only thing you can try to do in our system and society is put out the facts.”
Nowling highlights Gorsky’s willingness to become the public face of this crisis by agreeing to an interview with CNBC host Jim Cramer and sitting for a video statement posted prominently on J&J’s website.
The company is also engaging in a “full-court press” on social media, using its channels to encourage followers to check out its microsite while addressing complaints and concerns in real-time, Nowling says. The site itself refers to its core message – “the facts on talcum powder safety” – but allows the public to dig deeper with tomes of material.
However, that may be for naught if FactsAboutTalc.com is buried in Google’s search results, a critical deficiency since “many stakeholders will search for information through Google to learn more,” notes Howard Opinsky, president of Five Blocks, via email.
Opinsky contends that because J&J didn’t engage more broadly about the baby powder product before Reuters published its story, its reach will be much more limited.
“As a result, consumers searching for information about their baby powder were deluged with questions about its safety for years,” Opinsky adds.
J&J has also used financial maneuvering to respond to the crisis. The reports wiped out billions in market value. After the market’s close the following Monday, J&J announced a $5 billion share buyback program, which alleviated investor jitters, Nowling says. The program also signaled that the board is standing behind management. J&J’s stock was up slightly the following day.
This is a “pretty good indication investors have not gone far,” Nowling says. “What made J&J a good buy and hold before this crisis is still true today: It is a well-established company with loyal customer base.”
Pickard notes that Johnson & Johnson is “borrowing against its massive stockpile of reputation capital by playing the Tylenol card,” referring to J&J’s Tylenol crisis in the 1980s. After several Chicago customers died after ingesting Tylenol that was contaminated with cyanide, J&J pulled Tylenol from shelves and invented a triple seal safety packaging.
The company also promoted its credo philosophy, reminding people of its core values and legacy, before Reuters published its story last week, Pickard adds.
Gorsky himself referenced the Tylenol crisis in his interview with CNBC, arguing the actions described by Reuters and the Times, which occurred around the same time as the Tylenol crisis, don’t align with J&J’s established track record.
“I can’t believe the company that took that dramatic of an action would allow a product they felt, in any way, could be harmful to stay on the market,” Gorsky told Cramer during his CNBC interview.
“Gorsky is fighting for the brand in an energetic and aggressive way,” Pickard says. “His impression is a strong one, and with his military bearing, he arguably comes across more authoritatively on television.”
Opinsky adds that J&J would have benefited from outside voices as well.
“They must have researchers, regulators, and safety experts who have reviewed the product in the past,” he says. “Where are the voices of non-J&J experts in print or video content? They would add a great deal of credibility to the chairman’s message.”
This crisis messaging could also benefit J&J beyond the court of public opinion. With additional lawsuits likely to be filed, the importance of having a consistent message will only grow as lawyers scrutinize the brand’s crisis response for evidence of evasion or a change in message as a way to show the company has something to hide, Nowling says.
But don’t look for an apology from Gorsky, says Pickard.
“Unlike a lot of recent corporate controversies in the news, it’s doesn’t look like this one is going to feature a CEO apology any time soon,” he explains. “The stakes are too high, and the ‘facts’ are too contested.