J&J divides to conquer comms

Johnson & Johnson's decentralized approach to managing its business units helps inform its PR function, as well.

Johnson & Johnson's decentralized approach to managing its business units helps inform its PR function, as well.

Ever since its historic decision to recall an entire nation's worth of Tylenol during the 1982 poisoning crisis, Johnson & Johnson has enjoyed a reputation as a company that lives its ideals - especially in the communications field.

As a massive international diversified healthcare company that tallied more than $53 billion in sales last year, J&J is organized into successively more specialized segments, which fall under three major business units: consumer, pharmaceutical, and medical devices and diagnostics.

A multi-faceted function

Each major business unit has its own specialized communications team, which oversees even more communicators at various smaller units known as "franchises," which can themselves be multibillion-dollar operations. Sitting separate from those business segments is the central corporate communications team of about 30, which handles corporate issues affecting the company as a whole.

At the head of J&J's approximately 175-person communications team, Ray Jordan leads the company's corporate communications and public affairs work and reports directly to the chairman.

"Out of the corporate function, we provide direct support to our executive committee," Jordan says. "At the level of the groups, you would have communications officers who would have more direct responsibility for our business leaders - the folks we would call company group chairs or operating company presidents... those folks would link in to us on issues or overall corporate messaging."

In all aspects of its business, J&J emphasizes a decentralized approach rather than a dictatorial, centrally driven culture.

"The advantages for decentralization for Johnson & Johnson mirror those for the communications function," says Jordan. "You have the closeness to the market [of] a smaller operation, with the resources and the know-how of a much larger organization."

Within the business units themselves, the communications structure flows similarly, beginning with a core team overseeing the unit.

As J&J's VP of group issues and communications for medical devices and diagnostics, Susan Odenthal is essentially the chief communications officer of that hefty $21 billion section of the company's business. She reports to the group operating company's (GOC) worldwide chairman, Nick Valeriani, responsible for his executive communications work.

Seven discrete businesses, and two regions of the world for J&J - EMEA and Asia-Pacific - which are managed as their own businesses, all have leaders that report to Valeriani, meaning that Odenthal also helps coordinate the work of their communications teams.

Furthermore, Odenthal and her team provide communications support to executives in those discrete businesses and help the GOC itself establish its own reputation and positioning.

Culture of connection

Some of the discrete businesses are themselves as big as or bigger than independent competitors, so Odenthal depends on the culture of decentralization to help her keep things running smoothly.

"My role with them is to keep them connected," she says. "I have a monthly meeting of all of these communications leaders from throughout the world so that we can stay abreast of each other's issues, which often impinge on each other."

A product recall in California, for example, can ripple quickly through the media to affect business segments in China, so coordinated communications work can keep the corporate message unified and avoid needless duplication or unforeseen crises.

"In a lot of instances like that, we can be the bridge to other parts of the world," Odenthal explains.

All of these specialized and coordinated communications teams are an evolution; not long ago, Odenthal notes, J&J relied on the small corporate communications team to handle special needs that cropped up in the GOCs.

"That's where the evolution has come... it hasn't happened so much in corporate as it has out in the field," says Jeff Leebaw, VP of corporate media relations. "As times changed, it became vital to really have these discrete teams in the businesses and on site."

A year ago, J&J restructured its pharmaceutical business into three separate business units. Craig Rothenberg, VP of communications in the CNS/internal medicines unit, leads a group that supports that unit's global business. Still, he says his team has "more than a fair degree" of autonomy and an eye on the big picture.

"Brand teams are there to hit a forecast," Rothenberg notes. "[But] a lot of the work that we do is [on] a much longer-term basis."

At individual companies that J&J owns, there is also a freedom to take creative leaps in communications. Biotech company Centocor demonstrated that principle in February by releasing a full-length documentary called Innerstate that profiled people who have diseases treated by Centocor drugs.

Centocor VP of communications Michael Parks said that idea was in keeping with the outside-the-box thinking necessary after J&J corporate handed down stricter DTC advertising guidelines.

"Innerstate was the first campaign or media event that we've had that's really saturated the blog community," Parks says. "This has really increased the need to work closely with those communities."

On a corporate level, J&J is also embracing innovative communications. For the first time, the company last year posted a series of short videos highlighting different aspects of its business on its Web site to accompany its annual report. Nancy Walker, VP of corporate communications who heads the company's publications division, says the videos were an effort to highlight business efforts in "the words of the people who made them happen" - the employees.

As technology evolves, she adds, the company is seeking to bring a Web 2.0 element to more of its internal and external online publications. "Increasingly, this opens up fabulous opportunities for people to get to know companies better," she says, "and companies to get to know people and their customers better."

Internal Comms and Coordination at J&J

  • Franchise (business-line) communications leaders link in to corporate for issues management and corporate messaging guidance
  • Communications officers in the operating companies sit on management boards in order to be engaged in the dialogue on the business level
  • Leaders of the communications function regularly coordinate with other stakeholder-focused functions like government affairs, legal, and regulatory issues in a public affairs advisory group
  • Crisis communications workshops are held around the world a dozen times per year to bring business and communications leaders in the region together to train for crises
  • An internal training and workshop session for all communications leaders is held once a year, and J&J is developing a leadership development program for communicators
  • Internal surveys monitor staff attitudes on an ongoing basis

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