PR Failure #21: It’s Time to Rip Off the Band-Aid, J&J’s Response to the Opioid Crisis


PR Failure #21: It’s Time to Rip Off the Band-Aid, J&J’s Response to the Opioid Crisis

opiod crisis - johnson and johnson
Headlines and news crawls across the nation have been dominated by the opioid crisis. The impact of this crisis on the country has been significant, and while much of the attention has been paid to Purdue Pharma and its pivotal role in enabling and encouraging opioid abuse, Johnson & Johnson – the American multinational corporation best known for producing Band-Aids, shampoo and baby powder – is also being held accountable for decades of opioid addiction and thousands of overdoses across the country.

On Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, a judge in Oklahoma ruled that Johnson & Johnson had intentionally downplayed the dangers of opioid use and oversold the benefits of its opioid products. The company was ordered to pay the state $572 million.

No stranger to consumer crises, Johnson & Johnson has weathered setbacks like the Tylenol tampering situation with intentional messaging and memorable corporate actions that helped the public regain trust in the brand. Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol crisis has long been the go-to case study for crisis management. In 1982, when product tampering of Tylenol capsules led to seven deaths, Johnson & Johnson’s then-CEO James Burke immediately pulled 31 million bottles from store shelves. Even against the FDA’s advice, Burke declared the situation a public health problem. This consumer-centered strategy resulted in one of the biggest and most pivotal PR wins in history.

But its recent responses have not produced similar positive results among the general public.

Over the last year, Johnson & Johnson suffered from a number of other negative brand impacts, including a series of lawsuits over whether its baby powder led to ovarian cancer and a $775 million settlement over sales of an anti-stroke drug that could knowingly lead to fatal bleeding. The company’s response to the court ruling on its role in the opioid crisis further damages the company’s reputation as a brand that parents, doctors and consumers can trust.

The Story:

Between 1999 and 2017, about 400,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses, half of them from prescription drugs. During that time, pharmaceutical sales reps worked diligently to encourage physicians to prescribe these products without fully disclosing their dangerously addictive properties.

According to Thad Balkman, the judge in the Oklahoma case, Johnson & Johnson’s overly aggressive and misleading marketing tactics, which included coaching its sales representatives to avoid the negative side effects of opioid use and encouraging doctors to prescribe opioids for patients with moderate to severe pain, endangered the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans. (The suit cited that more than 326 million opioid pills were dispensed to Oklahoma residents in 2015, enough for every adult in the state to receive 110 pills.)

“Specifically, defendants caused an opioid crisis that’s evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome,” Judge Balkman wrote in his ruling.

Opiod crisis - johnson and johnson

The Failure:

Following the court ruling, Johnson & Johnson released a single statement announcing its plans to appeal the court’s “flawed” decision. In the statement, the company argued that the court’s judgment was not consistent with facts or law, outlined the appeal process and claimed it was actually working to fight back against substance abuse and addiction.

It is our opinion that the statement isn’t effective because it lacks sufficient empathy, accountability and action to repair the damage and rebuild trust in the brand. Three very important pieces to any negative situation.

Lack of empathy: Lives have been ruined and lost because of this epidemic, yet the response only briefly addresses the human side of the crisis, focusing instead on the facts of the case and the forthcoming appeal. The statement quotes Michael Ullmann, executive vice president and general counsel for Johnson & Johnson: “Janssen [Johnson & Johnson’s Pharmaceutical’s division] did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts nor the law supports this outcome… We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue, and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected. We are working with partners to find ways to help those in need.”

Lack of accountability: Johnson & Johnson blamed the state of Oklahoma for not properly regulating the supply of raw opium. The attempt to shift blame is obvious and erodes what little trust and respect the public might have for the brand. It’s a legal battle that unfortunately causes more PR harm than good.

Lack of action: Given the findings that Johnson & Johnson actively trained employees to overlook its drugs’ addictive dangers, we would expect to see an overhaul of the company’s approach to ethics, safety, sales training and marketing techniques. What’s planned? According to reports, they now have a plan for “collaborating with academic institutions to identify evidence-based best practices that can empower nurses and other health care practitioners to effectively respond to the opioid crisis at the community level.” This failure to take action on its internal operations does nothing to give us confidence that this won’t happen again and it makes us wonder what else they’re not telling us about other products. This can prove to be problematic in a world where consumers are on top of the brand story and its potential future.

The Lesson:

Too often, companies look to deflect blame, eschew responsibility and ignore humanity in their crisis response statements. These are mission-critical errors that don’t achieve the desired result (mitigating impact) and frequently exacerbate the problem. Lawyers are involved. But it is our job as public relations practitioners to serve the public by helping companies and organizations relate better to and with one another.

This Johnson & Johnson situation reminds us of the core elements of a successful and authentic response:

Acknowledge the lives of those affected. Sympathizing humanizes the brand and the response and makes those affected feel seen and their experiences recognized.

Be accountable. Admitting guilt or accepting blame is probably something your legal team will advise against, but there are ways to recognize your role in the situation without setting off attorneys’ alarm bells. Close collaboration between legal and PR is vital to crafting a response that meets both teams’ needs.

Outline actions. Explaining how you will investigate what led to the crisis and then the steps you will take to reduce the likelihood it will happen again begins to restore public confidence and trust. Regular progress reports build momentum and reinforce accountability, which can restore consumer and investor trust.

It’s never too early to begin a crisis management initiative. Start by dismantling the often-adversarial relationship between legal and PR so when these teams need to coordinate, trust and collaboration are already in place. Then draft practice holding statements that balance empathy and accountability within a safe legal framework. These efforts ensure that your crisis response will hit all the right notes.

Until next month,
Aaron Blank
CEO and President
The Fearey Group

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