J&J stresses thorough transition process

TRENTON, NJ: Johnson & Johnson's communications strategy following the announcement that CEO Bill Weldon will step down from his post in April is to emphasize that the decision was years in the making.

TRENTON, NJ: Johnson & Johnson's communications strategy following the announcement that CEO Bill Weldon will step down from his post in April is to emphasize that the decision was years in the making.

“We have been stressing that this leadership transition is the result of a rigorous, thorough, multi-year succession-planning process," Bill Price, VP of media relations at J&J, told PRWeek.

In December 2010, the company named two vice chairs: Alex Gorsky and Sheri McCoy. Gorsky will become CEO on April 26, the day of J&J's annual shareholder meeting. McCoy will become vice chair of the executive committee and report to Gorsky at that point.

“It's a testament to the leadership-development process and succession-planning process at J&J that [Gorsky] was appointed from within the organization,” Price said.

Media reports have attributed the leadership change to the dozens of product recalls that have frustrated the company in the last two years and have led to millions of products removed from the market.

However, Price said the recalls were not the reason for the leadership change.

“I wouldn't say it was in reaction to one particular thing,” he said. “The business has been addressing the recalls, and we have a lot more work to do there, but I would say this has been more about the robust transition in leadership taking place.”

J&J's communications strategy has focused heavily on internal, employee-targeted communications. These efforts include a blog post by Price on the J&J By The Way blog featuring a quote by Gorsky and sharing external coverage with staffers.

A communications plan featuring Gorsky is in the works, but Price said it's too early to say what it will entail. Although the firm has worked with Edelman on projects, it has yet to seek assistance from that firm or any others to promote the transition, Price said, adding that he was unsure if any PR firms' services would be sought for the transition.

Analysts have been receptive to the company's messaging. “This has been a fairly transparent succession,” said Kristen Stewart, an analyst at Deutsche Bank. “Weldon has been J&J's CEO for approximately 10 years, and we had been anticipating a changing of the guard.”

Sharing the news internally can be a difficult task for the company due to its size. “The problem with J&J is that it's bigger than some countries as far as population,” said Stephen Simpson, a freelance financial advisor.

He added that while the succession decision was a long time coming, there is some uncertainty as to why one vice chair was picked over another. However, Simpson said he was unsure if the leadership change would be enough to improve consumer confidence about J&J's products.

“I don't think the average shopper at Target or Wal-Mart is thinking, ‘Oh, they fired the CEO, so the Children's Tylenol must be safe,'” he said.

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