Category Archives: Johnson & Johnson

A Sour Battle: Splenda and the Sugar Industry

Sometimes its hard to believe what supposedly smart companies and organizations with expensive and smart lawyers do. Splenda is in a battle against sugar producers over “false advertising.” The issue is whether Splenda stating that their claim of “made from sugar, tastes like sugar” constitutes false advertising.

I had no idea how they made Splenda. I just know that it has let me enjoy some foods I really like without all the calories of sugar, and frankly, to me it does taste like sugar while some in my family (with admittedly more refined taste buds than mine) say it doesn’t–at all. Turns out, it does come from sugar. Chemically modified to eliminate the calories without the sweetness using chlorine. Now I don’t really like the idea of my sugar dipped in chlorine, but I do have pretty high confidence that if there wasn’t something safe about it somebody would be screaming bloody murder by now. Most likely the sugar folks. But they aren’t screaming about safety directly, they are screaming that Splenda says their product comes from sugar and tastes like sugar. Well, it does come from sugar, and at least one consume (me) thinks it tastes very much like sugar.

So what the heck is this big false advertising lawsuit all about? What damage do they think they can cause other than causing Splenda to spend a bunch of money on lawyers like they are doing? Ah, the lawsuit says that the company (owned by Johnson and Johnson by the way) uses “phosgene gas–a deadly weapon used in World War I” to create Splenda. Still, no safety claims to this lawsuit–but maybe it is just a clever way to get their accusation about using WWI weapons of mass destruction technology to kill us all. In this case, it is PR strategy disguised as legal action. I’ve seen it before, defended against it before and I found it disgusting then and even more disgusting in this case.

Come on lawyers (and sugar clients), give us a break. If it’s made from sugar and tastes like sugar, it ain’t false advertising.

Revisionist Thinking on Johnson and Johnson's Tylenol model

Finally, some controversy and differences of opinion in crisis management strategy. In his hardhitting and contrarian comments in this article from Daily Dog Eric Dezenhall gores the sacred cow of crisis management–Johnson and Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol poisoning–plus a few other sacred cows. Is he doing this just to get attention and help get his book sold or is he making some valid and powerful points? Both, in my opinion.

I first became aware of Eric when I was writing the first edition of my book Now Is Too Late. I quoted him extensively from his book called “Nail ‘Em.” This work focused on the role of the media in attacking reputations and how activists, politicians and others with agendas link up with the media to create a great danger for companies. Dezenhall’s very aggressive tone and strategies in dealing with these controversies was very clear in this work and seems to be expanded in this new book called “Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong.” He also contributed greatly to my understanding of the deep underlying anti-business bias in mainstream media, a topic which I addressed extensively both in my book and in this blog.

Dezenhall suggests that most PR people are ill-equipped to deal with crisis communication because they want to stay positive and just convey warm fuzzy messages. But most crises are battles, confrontations, and require much more aggressive response.

He says Johnson and Johnson’s situation should not provide a model because it took 8 days for them to issue the recall and also they were a victim as the tampering occurred outside of their control.

Here are a few of his new rules:

For starters, don’t always apologize. Bill Clinton and Martha Stewart survived scandals by avoiding apologies. Also: Seek recovery, not popularity. O.J. Simpson is reviled by much of the public, but he succeeded at avoiding jail. Another one is to fight back assertively instead of making nice. For example, Microsoft’s vigorous fight during its anti-trust battle had much more impact on saving its reputation than Gates’ attempt to appear more likable by wearing sweaters.

Don’t try to spin a public that doesn’t want to be spun. For example, BP’s feel-good advertising didn’t win over the public following 2005-6 allegations of leaks and commodity trading fraud. And don’t confuse crises with conflicts, nuisances or marketplace assaults. HP made the mistake of inflating its 2006 boardroom leak nuisance into a crisis.

My take on this?

He makes his strongest point when he suggests that a crisis is not simply a matter of someone doing something wrong, apologize for it and it will go away. The role that an infotainment-oriented media, plus opponents who have much to gain by attacking a reputation means most crises are far more complicated than this.

But, when he suggests that it was right for Clinton and Stewart not to apologize, or that OJ provides a good model of crisis management, or that BP’s communication about Beyond Petroleum was ineffective is just plain nuts, in my mind. I’ll leave the Clinton issue alone, but if Martha had said, “I’m sorry, I screwed up, what I did was wrong, I will take my punishment and learn from this” would she have gone to jail? Would her company have lost $200 million in value? No, she listened to her attorneys who said fight it all the way. And there is general recognition, expressed very well by Richard Loomis, publisher of World Energy, that BP’s investment in communicating a positive image in a changing world did much to help them when their reputation was seriously undermined by a series of crisis events. What is he suggesting here? Don’t try to build reputation equity because you might have a crisis and then it will look bad?

And, as I stated here before, Microsoft’s image was improved not by Bill Gates wearing sweaters but by the emergence of Google, which helped Microsoft look vulnerable rather than the all-powerful monopoly.

Well, it’s great that people in this business have very different takes. It means clients have real choices in who they hire to help them. And I’d love to see some other opinions on Eric’s ideas and contrarian thinking.

Can JetBlue Recover?

The ultimate question of crisis management and crisis communication has to do with recovery. JetBlue has given itself a monstrous black eye. And now, they are in the middle of the traditional media ‘black hat” spin cycle. Can it recover?

The basic rules for response when things have gone wrong are:
1) Accept responsibility
2) Apologize and make restitution if possible
3) Clearly identify the changes that will be made to prevent recurrence
4) Identify how future reports on progress will be made

Oh, yes, and do this all in the first few hours after the event–or as soon as is feasible given the distribution of the bad news in the instant news world.

So, how is JetBlue doing. Here is today’s New York Times report (thanks Neil!).

1) Accept responsibility. Yes and No. Neeleman’s quote that he was humiliated and mortified is good–very good even. But he blames management. Who is management? Ultimately, he is. He certainly doesn’t go as far as Johnson and Johnson executive in charge of the foreign divisions who accepted full responsibility and resigned–even though he was not aware of the problem. I’m not saying that Neeleman needed to resign–but acceptance of his own level of responsibility for not putting in place the management that he now says is missing is a problem.
2) Apology and restitution. Yes and No. He said he would announce a compensation system tomorrow. Too bad not today. There certainly sounds like genuine repentance in there, but until tomorrow comes, we don’t know. And that’s a problem, because the judgment is being made today in many people’s minds. Tomorrow, the plan will have to better than what it would have been if announced today.
3) Clearly identify the changes to be made. Mostly No. While Neeleman identified the problem as communication and lack of trained staff, the solution presented is to train 100 corporate office staff to help do the resource allocation work that was missed here. I don’t know about that. I think I would have been more comfortable with something a little more substantive addressing specifically the lack of staff, or inadequate training, or inadequate communication infrastructure than just saying we have to train some more corporate staff.
4) Report back. No sign of promise about future communication on this.

Mr. Neeleman did make an interesting comment: “We will be a different company because of this.” As I learned recently from Lynne Doll, president of The Rogers Group and one of the nation’s best crisis communication experts, every organization is a different organization coming out of a crisis. In fact, a crisis can almost be defined as an organization altering event. So, Mr. Neeleman spoke the truth here, even if it is a somewhat obvious one. What is not completely clear–and needed to be to come out of this with a higher likelihood of regaining credibility and confidence–is whether it will be a better company. Mr Neeleman and his communication team still have some work to do to convince the public and passengers of that in my opinion.

Now THIS is how to build trust and protect a golden reputation

Bulldog reports that Johnson & Johnson’s golden image is being tarnished by the revelation of improper payments made by foreign subsidiaries. I think just the opposite. Perhaps even more than the Tylenol case–which is routinely heralded as the best ever case study in managing a crisis–the way J&J is handling this serious situation sets the tone for crisis management in this age of transparency and authenticity.

In this case, some people affiliated with the company did some bad things (from a US perspective–global companies all struggle with a wide variation of what is ethical–but that is another matter). So what did the company do:

1) they disclosed it to the officials who would be charged with investigating them

2) they made their disclosure publicly–while making it clear that the company discovered and disclosed it proactively

3) the highest level executive who had oversight over this resigned, making clear that he accepted responsibility by virtue of his position. No mealy mouth talk about not knowing what was going on–if it happened on his watch, he accepted responsibility.

Bulldog’s headline writers consistently get the story wrong, as any long time reader of this blog will note. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe J&J will take a beating for this. It certainly is possible given how eager we all seem to be to take down those people and organizations who we have up on a pedestal. But from what I can see, this is a text book case of how to do it right when it hits the fan.