Revisionist Thinking on Johnson and Johnson’s Tylenol model

April 11, 2007

Finally, some controversy and differences of opinion in crisis management strategy. In his hardhitting and contrarian comments in this article from Daily Dog Eric Dezenhall gores the sacred cow of crisis management–Johnson and Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol poisoning–plus a few other sacred cows. Is he doing this just to get attention and help get his book sold or is he making some valid and powerful points? Both, in my opinion.

I first became aware of Eric when I was writing the first edition of my book Now Is Too Late. I quoted him extensively from his book called “Nail ‘Em.” This work focused on the role of the media in attacking reputations and how activists, politicians and others with agendas link up with the media to create a great danger for companies. Dezenhall’s very aggressive tone and strategies in dealing with these controversies was very clear in this work and seems to be expanded in this new book called “Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong.” He also contributed greatly to my understanding of the deep underlying anti-business bias in mainstream media, a topic which I addressed extensively both in my book and in this blog.

Dezenhall suggests that most PR people are ill-equipped to deal with crisis communication because they want to stay positive and just convey warm fuzzy messages. But most crises are battles, confrontations, and require much more aggressive response.

He says Johnson and Johnson’s situation should not provide a model because it took 8 days for them to issue the recall and also they were a victim as the tampering occurred outside of their control.

Here are a few of his new rules:

For starters, don’t always apologize. Bill Clinton and Martha Stewart survived scandals by avoiding apologies. Also: Seek recovery, not popularity. O.J. Simpson is reviled by much of the public, but he succeeded at avoiding jail. Another one is to fight back assertively instead of making nice. For example, Microsoft’s vigorous fight during its anti-trust battle had much more impact on saving its reputation than Gates’ attempt to appear more likable by wearing sweaters.

Don’t try to spin a public that doesn’t want to be spun. For example, BP’s feel-good advertising didn’t win over the public following 2005-6 allegations of leaks and commodity trading fraud. And don’t confuse crises with conflicts, nuisances or marketplace assaults. HP made the mistake of inflating its 2006 boardroom leak nuisance into a crisis.


My take on this?

He makes his strongest point when he suggests that a crisis is not simply a matter of someone doing something wrong, apologize for it and it will go away. The role that an infotainment-oriented media, plus opponents who have much to gain by attacking a reputation means most crises are far more complicated than this.

But, when he suggests that it was right for Clinton and Stewart not to apologize, or that OJ provides a good model of crisis management, or that BP’s communication about Beyond Petroleum was ineffective is just plain nuts, in my mind. I’ll leave the Clinton issue alone, but if Martha had said, “I’m sorry, I screwed up, what I did was wrong, I will take my punishment and learn from this” would she have gone to jail? Would her company have lost $200 million in value? No, she listened to her attorneys who said fight it all the way. And there is general recognition, expressed very well by Richard Loomis, publisher of World Energy, that BP’s investment in communicating a positive image in a changing world did much to help them when their reputation was seriously undermined by a series of crisis events. What is he suggesting here? Don’t try to build reputation equity because you might have a crisis and then it will look bad?

And, as I stated here before, Microsoft’s image was improved not by Bill Gates wearing sweaters but by the emergence of Google, which helped Microsoft look vulnerable rather than the all-powerful monopoly.

Well, it’s great that people in this business have very different takes. It means clients have real choices in who they hire to help them. And I’d love to see some other opinions on Eric’s ideas and contrarian thinking.

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One Response to “Revisionist Thinking on Johnson and Johnson’s Tylenol model”

  1. Chris Bothel Says:

    I had a professor in college who did his doctoral thesis on the “apology of Jimmy Swaggart”. In the course of his (Jimmy’s) apology and contrite admission of “sin”, he never once states the offense for which he was sorry. (Mike Giuliani is the professor’s name at Westmont College.)

    The comment Eric makes about “don’t try and spin a public that doesn’t want to be spun” is interesting. As a PR professional, where do you make the determination between an audience that wants to be spun and one that does not? Is the anticipated response of your audience as important as the response that you give in the first place? Is it more important?

    I’d be interested to get MSNBC’s take on the issue……

    Good post.


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