According to ABC News, the Food and Drug Administration blasted drugmaker Johnson & Johnson for being slow to accept that problems with its arthritis caplets also extended to other Tylenol products. A voluntary recall of the caplets, distributed by Johnson & Johnson’s McNeil Healthcare LLC, began last month after consumers began to complain that batches of foul-smelling pills were making them sick.
On January 15, the FDA had to order the company to recall more than 50 million more bottles of various kinds of other Tylenol products, including Rolaids and even some children’s medicines.
“McNeil should have acted faster. When something smells bad, literally or figuratively, they must aggressively investigate and solve the problem,” said Deborah Autor, director of the FDA’s Office of Compliance
It appears the smell emanating from the products came from a chemical related to the breakdown of the wood used in pallets that are used to transport the drugs.
On the same day that the FDA ordered the expanded recall, Reuters reportedthe U.S. Department of Justice accused Johnson & Johnson of paying “tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks” to a company called Omnicare that supplies medicines for the elderly to numerous nursing homes nationwide. The company denies any wrongdoing.
The good old days are gone
These worrisome incidents stand in stark contrast to the way that Johnson & Johnson handled the infamous Tylenol poisonings in 1982. Communications scholars still cite the company’s swift moves to protect the public as a case study of how an ethical response turned out to be the best course of action.
I remember that frightening fall when seven people in Chicago died mysteriously within a short period of time. Testing showed that all of them had been poisoned by a massive dose of cyanide, and the one thing they had in common was that all had taken Tylenol Extra-Strength capsules that had been tampered with by a person or persons unknown.
Instead of hunkering down in a bunker and leaving the crisis communications to public relations flacks, Johnson & Johnson chairman James Burke instead put together a strategy team to address two priorities – protecting the public and then protecting the company, in that order.
Under Burke’s visible leadership, Johnson & Johnson immediately and voluntarily pulled 30 million bottles of the drug from pharmacy shelves nationwide, at a cost to the company of $100 million.
I regularly use this example to tell my mass communications students that companies can do well by doing good.
At the time, many people thought that Tylenol would never recover. Advertising guru Jerry Della was quoted as suggesting that only divine intervention could save the brand. “There may be an advertising person who thinks he can solve this and if they find him, I want to hire him, because then I want him to turn our water cooler into a wine cooler.”
It wasn’t until much later, after Johnson & Johnson’s stock price and Tylenol sales had recovered, did it become clear that doing the ethical thing was also the best business decision.
So how could a company with such a great track record in the past abandon the high ground of corporate responsibility? Are today’s missteps an isolated case of devolution or is this evidence of a much-greater and much-longer slide?
Perhaps the health-care debate and the financial crisis are laying bare the visible decline in corporate ethics of the past quarter-century. Johnson & Johnson now digs in and offers spin from the PR department instead of swift action to correct the problem. Banks are scurrying to institute as many usurious fees as possible before new credit rules are imposed, and they will fight to the death to pay outrageous bonuses, public be damned.
Size does matter. The larger a corporation gets, the more impersonal and uncaring it seems to get. Sean and Kyle at Vertex Computers in Frandor gave me tremendous service for the computer that was out of warranty. The “free” in-warrnty repairs from those major manufacturers instead wasted hours of my time trying to understand folks in a call center in India over a bad connection, while feeling my blood pressure rise.
Back in the 70s, consumer advocate Ralph Nader spearheaded an effort to create a federal Consumer Protection agency. Corporations back then fought the bill saying it wasn’t necessary – they promised to be good if we put the whip down.
So here we are again, and Senator Christopher Dodd is signalling that he may abandon trying to get a new Consumer Protection Agency through the Senate. And even now, more than a year after the financial meltdown, we see that Congress cannot pass meaningful regulatory reform of the banks and the exotic and unstable slew of new financial products that came close to plunging us into another Great Depression.
Devo was ahead of its time. Devolution is now.