When Maggie FitzPatrick moves into the long-vacated CCO role at Johnson & Johnson on September 16, she will face the challenge of bringing the pharma and CPG giant's reputation back to that of its heyday.
Only five years ago, J&J was ranked in the top 10 of Fortune's Most Admired Companies list, but it has since fallen to number 23. Its handling of the Tylenol recall in 1982 is often held up as the gold standard for crisis response. However, healthcare PR experts say recent events have diminished the company's legacy as one of the most trusted brands in the US.
From 2009 to 2012, J&J seemingly faced one product recall after another, from children's Tylenol and various over-the-counter drugs to an artificial hip that resulted in 10,000 lawsuits, which led to investor doubts about the company's leadership. In April 2012, Bill Weldon stepped down as CEO and former vice chair Alex Gorsky took his place.
Within the PR function, Ray Jordan departed as communications leader in September 2012 for a post at Amgen. Other exits from the group followed: William Price, VP of media relations, left to lead comms at Zoetis, formerly Pfizer's animal health unit, while former VP of supply chain communications Stephen Dnistrian became COO for the PR group at Omnicom's Diversified Agency Services unit. Most recently, Jeffrey Leebaw, VP for corporate media relations at J&J, also left the company.
“This is a time for J&J to reset,” says Kate Cronin, global MD of Ogilvy CommonHealth. “We live in a culture of redemption. If anyone can return to the leader of the pack in the healthcare sector, it's J&J. The biggest challenge for FitzPatrick will be bringing back the heritage of the J&J that people knew, loved, and trusted.”
She notes that the company's first global corporate branding campaign in a decade, For All You Love, harkens back to J&J's old image. The communications function “will also need to manage any issues that come up, even small ones, swiftly, and in a transparent way. J&J has to change its mindset in terms of how they respond to problems,” Cronin adds.
Sources, however, tell PRWeek that the organizational structure of the PR function at J&J can be problematic. The group is highly decentralized, in which business units operate with considerable autonomy that can make it difficult to streamline messaging to stakeholders.
The leader of the PR function does not report to the CEO. Sources say this was a major issue when the company dealt with the fallout from recent recalls, because the communications team could not take as much of a lead as it wanted.
The search for a new chief communicator at J&J took about nine months, and some observers believe the reporting structure may have been a sticking point for candidates who wondered if they would be able to serve as an effective senior counselor to the business.
However, FitzPatrick, who will leave her CCO role at Cigna in early August, told PRWeek earlier this month, “I've been assured as part of this process that the communications role has an important seat at the table.” FitzPatrick could not be reached for comment for this article.
Although she will report to VP of global corporate public affairs Michael Sneed, who previously led the company's vision-care group, FitzPatrick is expected to work directly with Gorsky.
The company works with many PR partners including RF|Binder, which declined to comment, and Edelman, which counts J&J as one of its largest accounts worldwide.
Kym White, global practice chair for health for Edelman, tells PRWeek that J&J also faces the same challenges every health company is facing right now. These include the integration of communications across geographies and businesses, moving into content creation and the integration of paid and earned media, and helping to advance the market access of the company's pharmaceutical and medical devices and diagnostics products.
“In an increasingly cost-constrained market, [stakeholders] need to hear a story of value,” explains White.
She adds that former chairman Robert Wood Johnson wrote J&J's corporate credo 70 years ago. “This is an opportune time to engage employees as well as external stakeholders and to educate new audiences about what Johnson & Johnson stands for – then and now,” says White.
Ernie Knewitz, VP of global media relations at J&J, said the company declined to comment for this article.