When considering the scale of the communications challenge facing Johnson & Johnson, which this week announced a change in CEO, I am reminded of a fantastic speech given last year at PRWeek's NEXT Conference by CBS CCO Gil Schwartz.
Schwartz pointed out in his inimitable fashion that people are always talking about companies having "PR problems" but what they usually have are a set of decision-making and operating problems related to management issues, not PR.
These management problems can be solved by PR, at least in part, but they are not PR problems per se. And that will be high on the agenda of incoming J&J CEO Alex Gorsky, who takes over from 10-year incumbent Bill Weldon in April.
In J&J's case, the management and operational problems encompassed recalls of everything from Tylenol to Benadryl that cost the company “hundreds of millions of dollars and consumers' trust,” according to Associated Press.
They included a so-called "stealth recall" in 2008, which involved the company paying a third party to buy up packages of faulty medication from stores. Regulators have been keeping close tabs on J&J's factories and the corporation faces lawsuits over the recalls, including one from a family that claims its small child died after taking a "super dose" of Tylenol.
Schwartz would say that Ray Jordan's communications and public affairs department over at J&J needs to get “in front of the elephant,” rather than being behind it clearing up the mess.
For example, was the communications department consulted before J&J decided to go ahead with the “stealth recall” in 2008? If it was, you can assume the advice would have been to proceed very carefully, if at all, given the potential legal and reputational ramifications should the buy-up become public.
It is incidents like this that have led to more respondents to a Harris Interactive Reputational Quotient study viewing J&J negatively.
If you want to provide value to your senior management, Schwartz's very pertinent advice is that the intrinsic value of the comms department is “telling the elephant what it needs to hear, not what it wants to hear.”
He added that most of the time comms people are operating in a combination of both positions: in front of and behind the elephant. If you report to the right person you're doing both, you can “manage information, frighten the elephant, control it,” but most of all you have to have control of the process at the beginning.
If you attempt to make the organization do the right thing enough, it will start to listen to you – and that is at the heart of great PR.
When we interviewed Jordan last year for our Newsmaker slot, he said J&J would ultimately earn back trust through demonstrating leadership in safety and quality. Moving forwards, it is clear that communications has to be completely ingrained in that trust-earning process.
If it does that, it may have a fighting chance of staying in front of the elephant and abiding by Schwartz's “Hippocratic Oath of PR”, which is: “First, make no news.”