HOLMES REPORT: Smooth transition for Nielsen's successor displays value of PR at Johnson & Johnson

One of the problems facing corporate PR people is the difficulty of institutionalizing the function.

One of the problems facing corporate PR people is the difficulty of institutionalizing the function.

Individual PR professionals might earn the respect of their chief executives and other members of the corporate leadership team, but respect for the individual rarely translates to respect for the function. When the individual leaves, whoever takes his or her place has to start from scratch, and it can take months or even years before he or she has the legendary "seat at the table."

You might think that's only fair. Everyone has to earn respect; it's not an entitlement. But think about PR in relation to other disciplines and you'll see the problem. When the company's chief legal officer steps down, the legal function doesn't suddenly become less important, marginalized until his replacement proves himself. When the chief financial officer moves on, the new CFO is not forced to endure a waiting period before she has the ear of the CEO.

And turnover in the PR department is not the only thing that can cause the function to lose that seat at the table. Turnover in the corner office can have the same effect. A PR executive who enjoyed the confidence of the old CEO might find the new one unable to understand or unwilling to acknowledge the contribution good PR can make to success. (That's one reason PR people are often the first to leave after a changing of the guard.)

So it's worth pausing for a moment to applaud the transition in PR leadership currently taking place at Johnson & Johnson. Bill Nielsen, who has held the top job at the company for the past 14 years, is stepping down next month. His place will be taken by Ray Jordan, who will be a corporate officer on day one of his tenure and will report - as did Nielsen - to the company's chief executive.

That sends a powerful signal about the regard in which the PR function is held at Johnson & Johnson and the major contribution it has made (under Nielsen and his predecessor, Larry Foster) to the company's success.

When PR people hear the names Johnson & Johnson, they inevitably think of the Tylenol crisis, one of the textbook instances of successful PR in action. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from that incident, but the most important one is that PR thinking was - and still is - embedded in the DNA at Johnson & Johnson.

One of the challenges for all corporate PR pros is making sure the same is true at their companies: that senior management understands the value of PR, so the function continues to thrive - and to contribute - even after today's leadership has moved on.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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