Though many facts are on its side, likely comms fallout is on J&J's mind as it sues the Red Cross
Wandering into pitched battle against one of the most historically respected nonprofits on the planet might not be a corporate communications strategy recommended by most PR advisors. But Johnson & Johnson went ahead with the plan anyway - presumably because business concerns outweighed PR concerns - and filed suit against the American Red Cross for using its iconic red-cross logo in what J&J deemed were for-profit partnerships.
As is usually the case in such stories, there's much more to this than immediately meets the eye. Few would have known previously, for instance, that J&J has owned the trademark to the symbol for more than 100 years. Yet, for nearly as long, the Red Cross has been selling items with the emblem on it without objection from J&J.
In 2004, however, the Red Cross began to sell these items - which included first aid kits, hand sanitizers, and medical gloves - at some of the largest chain stores in America. J&J objected to this development because those products sit alongside some J&J items, therefore providing competition.
As J&J execs have freely admitted, they were aware the story of one of the world's largest drugmakers suing a nonprofit with a track record of providing crucial humanitarian aid and disaster relief would be irresistible to newspaper editors across the US.
Marita Gomez, VP of Cushman Amberg/ HealthInfo Direct, notes that it wasn't a
battle J&J could really win.
"At this point, it's a cultural logo and one that's synonymous with disaster relief and humanitarian aid," she says. "While I understand the business objectives, J&J risks
a significant hit to [its] reputation."
Richard Levick, president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, points out that in all the coverage there has been little denial that the Red Cross is in violation of a longstanding contract. And blogs have asserted the nonprofit turned down generous offers from the drugmaker to choose the mediator for negotiations.
So while the Red Cross was well aware this was a battle it could win, J&J clearly did a cost-benefit analysis of its own, says Harlan Loeb, MD of litigation strategy at FD.
"When a for-profit company takes on a nonprofit with the image equity that the
Red Cross enjoys, you do so fully advised of the risk," he says.
Despite having the facts mentioned by Levick on its side, J&J left nothing to chance by blogging as the news unfolded. While the Red Cross is using traditional press releases from Mark Everson, American Red Cross president and CEO, to accuse the corporation of greed, Ray Jordan, J&J VP for public affairs and corporate communications, is blogging about the suit in a more colloquial fashion.
"So, I've now lived a classic corporate public affairs nightmare: announcing a lawsuit against the American Red Cross," Jordan wrote at www.jnjbtw.com. "Would I have chosen this exercise as a reputation-building opportunity for Johnson & Johnson. No,
of course not."
The moment it becomes a discussion about the mission and purpose of the Red Cross versus a company the size of J&J, you've lost the PR fight, Loeb asserts. But if the company can shape the debate into one about intellectual property rights, as it is attempting to articulate on its blog postings, then there could be room for escaping without its reputation having been tarred and feathered in the process.
Levick thinks even if J&J felt it had to file a suit, there were still missteps along the way.
"If you're going to sue, then don't ask for damages," he says. "Allow the money that has accrued to go to the Red Cross. So the litigation then is for symbolic purposes rather than monetary ones. The amount of money we're talking about here, while central to the Red Cross's mission, is little more than a rounding error for J&J. It makes them look greedy."
Neither the Red Cross nor J&J responded to requests for comments for this piece.