Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Despite Its Social Media Expertise, J&J Fails to Use It Effectively to Communicate to Consumers

Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ's) has earned accolades from industry pundits for its social media expertise (see Dosie Awards, for example). Yet it's handling of the McNeil Consumer recall of children's medicines seems weak in general and very weak specifically with regard to the use of social media to reach out and engage consumers on the issue.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, "Some parents say the recall has weakened J&J's reputation for quality. The recall has also prompted a congressional investigation of the company's handling of consumer complaints and the adequacy of the FDA's inspections. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has asked J&J Chief Executive William Weldon to testify at a hearing on May 27" (see "FDA Widens Probe of J&J's McNeil Unit").

The only response from JNJ via social media after issuing notices about the recall back in early May was a 253-word blog post by JNJ CEO Bill Weldon on JNJBTW (see "To All Who Use Our Products -- From Bill Weldon") and a series of Tweets from Marc Monseau, JNJ's Director of Corporate Communication, linking to that letter (see below).

Meanwhile on other blogs like Bnet, Weldon is accused of being clueless (see "Tylenol Recalls: CEO Weldon Is Either Clueless or Lying, and Neither Will Play Before Congress").

Thanks to PharmaGossip for Photoshopped image of Bill Weldon

Social media is often touted by drug industry experts as a tool to be used to "manage the conversation" or, at least, to participate in the conversation. But JNJ is not engaging or participating as much as I think it could or should. To his credit, Monseau has approved and published on JNJBTW blog several negative comments from moms, docs, and former JNJ employees, but Weldon has not responded or continued the dialogue.

NOTE: As Monseau points out in a comment to this post, he has responded to readers in relation JNJBTW posts on this topic (see "McNeil Announces Voluntary Recall"). Edwin Kuffner, MD, Vice President of Medical Affairs at McNeil Consumer Healthcare, has also responded to comments, but mostly to tell consumers to contact their doctors about problems with medications. What I was looking for, I guess, are further posts to JNJBTW keeping readers apprised of progress that J&J is making -- especially from the CEO. The last comment by Monseau on May 4 was "I apologize that we are not able to provide you with more answers at this time. As dr. Kuffner explained, we are continuing to investigate these issues and we have shared as much information with you that we can." Read into that what you want, but the news stories continue and the JNJBTW blog has been silent on these latest stories.

To recap: I feel that the issue deserves more than a single 250-word post by Weldon on a blog. It leads me to believe that Weldon's appearance before Congress will be as engaging and forthright as was Goldman Sach's and the oil industry's.

BTW, after I posted "Trouble in the House that McNeil Built: Why Drug Company Silos are Useful", I was quoted in an AdAge article:
"Deep down I do believe that J&J is keeping its stellar reputation partially due to the fact that it is siloed into many different operating units. It does seem to go out of its way to link the J&J brand to baby products and mom rather than Rx drugs, some of which have nasty side effects and even nastier marketing practices. That's why Marc Monseau always -- I mean always -- prefaces his public statements saying that J&J is not a pharmaceutical company, it's a health company. Imagine a bizarro Oz where the wizard behind the curtain is actually an evil wizard who appears to be doing good things. Of course, I'm not saying that J&J is evil; it's just another drug company" (see "What's Ailing J&J -- and Why Isn't Its Rep Hurting?").


  1. Maybe there is an evil wizard behind the curtain?

  2. Marc Monseau12:37 PM


    Your post mischaracterizes our actions – partly because I don't think you have your facts straight. There have, in fact, been three posts to JNJBTW on the recall as well as responses to several of the comments we received – from me as well as from Dr. Ed Kuffner at McNeil. Furthermore, after the recall was announced there were Tweets on both @JNJComm and the McNeil Recall twitter feed.

    As for Facebook, we did not prevent discussion or comments about the recall.


    Marc Monseau
    Johnson & Johnson

  3. Anonymous3:45 PM

    "I don't believe that JNJ's lack of engagement and continued discussion has anything at all to do with FDA regulations or its lack of social media expertise."

    Actually, the latter. The individuals involved tend toward the self-protecting, 'happy with my lot', don't rock the boat, "we were lucky to happen upon this 'social media' thing early before the job spec was written and hence could be given to more qualified people" type of guys. JnJ health channel is garbage. They are quite good at self publicity at every tin pot event going - that is their core skill. ooh, go on, give us the 'corporate organising for social media' spiel one more time - please, I forgot about that 2 year old slide deck. AGAIN.btw.btw.

  4. J&J's response has been anemic at best. Consumers who have called their phone number are read the press release. The majority of comments from readers and parents on the JNJBTW blog have been deleted or screened out. The J&J strategy has been to do everything possible to bury this story.

    The company is hiding. It is not engaging with consumers. It is making it difficult for consumers to find real, quality information. It is resorting to twisted legal language meant to deflect downstream litigation and, more likely, confuse parents.

    Frankly it is damn frustrating to watch a once-great company that I respected implode through a twisted combination of hubris and arrogance.

    Mr. Monseau likes to complain about the fast pace of the media and how J&J is often unfairly portrayed (he has posted comments on JNJBTW about this in the past). The media isn't doing this to J&J. Nobody is doing this to J&J. J&J did this kids. The only way out of this mess is to accept some responsibility for that and sound sincere about it.

  5. John, could you share some thoughts on what you would advise JNJ to do as part of a more fully developed social media response strategy? Are you thinking the company should have more Tweets, engage on more sites, etc.? I'm curious what you think the ideal roadmap looks like.

  6. Hi Melissa,

    For what it's worth, I believe this situation calls for more information and conversation no matter what the channel or the road.

    But since we are talking about social media, let's stick to that.

    Because the CEO has been targeted, is expected to meet with Congress, and posted a message to JNJBTW, he should lead the discussion. In addition to a formal letter posted to the corporate blog, how about opening up a YouTube channel in which he and McNeil executives talk directly to their audience and provide updates. They should allow comments -- and respond to as many as necessary.

    Twitter can work with this to keep people informed about what is going on and link to specific videos.

    If the CEO talks to Congress, get the transcript and post it before anyone else does. Ask readers to comment on how well or not so well questions were answered by the CEO and what was missing.

    Of course, there needs to be some progress if you are going to give updates. Actions speak louder than words. Social media won't solve the problms.

    Right now, I feel that JNJ doesn't have a handle on what's causing the problems. At least that's what I suspect from the reports I have heard. Maybe there are complicated manufacturing issues that involve things JNJ doesn't want to be made public (eg, importation of tainted supplies from China)? Maybe this is a good opportunity to provide a virtual tour of a Good Manufacturing facility with interviews of employees.

    I don't know if this is a roadmap or not, but when your company's reputation is at stake, the leaders have to be visible. You can't just say "one of our companies has let you down" and leave it at that. What are going to do about it so that it doesn't happen again? is what people really want to hear from the people who are in charge, not the PR department.

  7. Does J&J really think most mainstream US Moms are reading its corporate blog? No, they are gathering in other places like Facebook. Where's J&J's response in social media?

  8. Anonymous4:38 PM

    Call me old-fashioned, but William Weldon should start by acknowledging his personal responsibility, and offer a personal apology. So far he has failed to do so. This is not a natural disaster! It is obvious that J&J's management has failed, and as the CEO, Weldon cannot avoid his responsibility for that.
    It's more than a matter of decency. The public cannot be expected to trust an organization if its leadership is not held accountable. What signal would it give for the future, if the CEO could walk away blameless after something like this happened under his watch?

  9. BrooklynGirl: I appreciate your perspective. So you know, we also communicated the news of the recall on Twitter after the announcement and put the news on the J&J Facebook page.

  10. J&J is a very reputed organisation. Are the allegations right. But thanks for sharing it.

  11. Anonymous10:54 PM

    Those that have worked in an FDA regulated environment are aware that communications must be carefully crafted and that those communications are subject to extreme scrutiny by the public as well as regulatory groups.
    Unfortunately, all the restrictions that FDA regulated companies face prohibit them from responding as speedily via Social Media channels as most other companies.
    Having a close connection with Johnson & Johnson, I understand their commitment to their customers and cannot imagine that they would want to bury a story or screen out any messages. If this is the case, it is certainly a disappointment. They hold fast to their credo and this would go against their company beliefs.
    I agree that transparency is important and feel that the company remains transparent with announcing the various voluntary recalls they have had over the years, along with other field communications and issues that they have voluntarily brought forward.
    That being said, I agree that clear messaging and apology should come from the top management and that those messages can go far. What John Mack said about accepting responsibility and being sincere, rather than being too political, would be more warmly received and it appears what the public is looking for.

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