Johnson & Johnson's Baby Powder Blues

Johnson & Johnson’s widely praised response to a product tampering crisis in the early Eighties has been long held-up as the pinnacle in effective reputation management. You can read a lot more here.

I mention the business as they are back in the news last week; The Australian’s ‘J&J hit with $170 million damages in talc cancer cases’ headline captures the situation rather bluntly. To summarize, separate juries in the United States awarded two women a total $127 million (USD) in damages as the company’s iconic baby powder was deemed to have been to blame for the plaintiffs developing ovarian cancer.

The story throws up a number of intriguing points; firstly, the legal system’s effect on the notion of truth. Absoluteness in terms of the facts is becoming a lot harder to attain when subjected to the vagaries of a court process; for instance, two courts found for the women, while a third (in 2013) decided the firm was negligent, but didn’t award damages. However, all of this stands in contrast to the company’s “thirty years of medical expertise” which supports the powder. Secondly, there’s the question of who best to rebuild trust in the product among consumers? Typically, this sort of assurance would be offered by appropriate health professionals; generally, doctors. For many, though, such figures are seen as a little too close to industry; part of the problem, as opposed to the solution, possibly. So, would this fall more comfortably within the realm of celebrity endorsement – a discerning mother figure seen elbow-deep in the white stuff? You get the gist. Lastly, the case highlights the importance of external agencies to support organisations over the long-term with such issues. Specifically, it is alleged that Johnson & Johnson “was concerned about the association between talcum powder and ovarian cancer…since the Seventies”. If that was the case (and it’s a big ‘if’), it’s vital to have a agency in place to manage the issue – the matter can be transplanted to a suitable host to carry out all the required pre-crisis preparedness that’s critical for these occasions. Such work can’t be done with any great satisfaction inside the business due to the inherent politics, and the sensitivity of the matter invariably gets in the way of having a full-blown planning strategy – the ‘hush hush’ effect is not good for engendering trust within an organisation, so why not have the matter managed and nursed off site?