The Today show on September 21st dusted off a fairly old story. Ortho Evra, a birth control patch introduced in 2002 and produced by J&J subsidiary Ortho McNeil was in the news again. Since the time of its introduction the patch has been the subject of thousands of court complaints. The product allegedly has the effect of causing deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolisms, heart attacks, strokes and death, all stemming from the fact that it can deliver twice as much estrogen to the body as regular birth control pills. J&J has received years of bad press about this subject. No claim has ever gone to trial and J&J continues settlements that total many tens of millions of dollars.
The Today show reported that it had recently uncovered a 2005 resignation letter from a former J&J vice president saying that he could not remain in his position knowing the high levels of estrogen delivered by the product. The show also reported that another former vice president was suing the Company for wrongful termination based on his whistle-blowing efforts even before the product was introduced to the public.
Now switch gears to J&J’s non-prescription products. Over the last year, the Company has gone through a slew of product recalls, including infants’ and children’s Tylenol, for reasons including contamination and the presence of foreign matter. The Company also conducted what is termed a “phantom” recall of Motrin by hiring a third party to buy up the product on store shelves in order to avoid adverse publicity. J&J maintains that it did so under an agreement with the Food and Drug Administration. The House of Representatives investigated the recalls, and questioned the alleged agreement with FDA when it heard CEO William Weldon at the end of September. Weldon acknowledged at the hearing that J&J had let the public down by not maintaining its high standards. An F.D.A. official testified that the Company had an inadequate quality system at a number of its facilities. One lawmaker declared that J&J’s failures would mar its reputation for years.
J&J’s 1982 handling of the Tylenol scare is often cited as the quintessential example of crisis management in modern corporate history. Back then cyanide had been found in bottles of Tylenol in the Chicago area. J&J immediately issued public warnings, called a product recall, created tamper-proof packaging, and before long was fully back in business. The Company was up-front and willing to bite the bullet in the best interests of the public. Unfortunately that does not appear to be the philosophy today.
J&J’s website states that “The values that guide our decision making are spelled out in Our Credo. Put simply, Our Credo challenges us to put the needs and well-being of the people we serve first.” Maybe so, but it appears as if a new breed of management has taken the reins at J&J – new cutting -edge types whose sole concentration is on the bottom line. Yet it might be this competence and cool business efficiency that will have the effect of undermining the extraordinary 120 year old reputation of this venerable institution. The abilities of current management must be tempered with sensitivity and responsibility to the public in order to salvage and maintain the invaluable good will of one of America’s great corporations. Hopefully the lessons learned will again set management on the right course.