Johnson & Johnson Fights Talc Ruling

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During the National Summit on Strategic Communications last week I heard a senior communicator, Ray Kerins, SVP, head of communications, Bayer, delineate the run-up to a crisis. First, he said, brands have issues. Should they grow through lack of attention or positive resolution, they can enlarge to become problems. Problems that go unresolved can rise to the level of crises, Kerins said. One of Kerins’s points: It’s the job of communicators to address issues before they grow to become problems or crises.

I’m wondering how to classify the May 2 jury verdict in Missouri, where Johnson & Johnson (J&J) was ordered to pay a plaintiff $55 million in a suit that alleges talc in the brand’s Baby Powder led to her contracting ovarian cancer.

At the outset, it seems clear how J&J views the situation: an issue that requires action.

The same day the jury returned its verdict, the J&J site published a blog post titled “4 Important Facts About the Safety of Talc.” Three of the facts emphasize scientific studies that fail to support a link between talc and cancer. The fourth notes that “since the 1970s” talc used in consumer products has been required to be asbestos-free. Following the brief essay is a 2-minute video featuring J&J’s chief medical officer, Dr. Joanne Waldstreicher, discussing the science and safety of talc.

The J&J statement after the jury verdict was consistent with its web tactics. “Unfortunately, the jury’s decision goes against 30 years of studies by medical experts around the world that continue to support the safety of cosmetic talc,” J&J’s spokesperson Carol Goodrich said.

She continued, “For over 100 years, Johnson & Johnson has provided consumers with a safe choice for cosmetic powder products and we will continue to work hard to exceed consumer expectations and evolving product preferences.”

OK, case closed, right? J&J eventually takes a powder, although before that it reaches into its deep pockets (a Wall St darling, it's the sole publicly traded company with a AAA rating) and pays the ticket. All done.

Not quite. The brand says it will appeal.

More backstory. Just a few months ago, in February to be exact, another MO jury awarded a plaintiff $72 million in a talc case against J&J. In that case the original plaintiff died of ovarian cancer before the case went to trial. Her son took over as the plaintiff.

Media reports quote a lawyer for the recent plaintiff saying there are some 1,000 similar cases in the pipeline in MO and 200 in NJ, where J&J is headquartered. MO is said to be a favorable state to plaintiffs due to the Show-Me State’s malleable regulations regarding expert witnesses, according to the American Tort Reform Foundation.

More background. Being a hugely successful brand brings many privileges. It also includes some less-attractive features, such as being seen as a lawsuit target. Keeping that in mind and understanding that J&J's C-suite and communicators have a history due to the Tylenol recall, you have to think the brand has a well-researched plan to handle the talc situation.

This one bears watching.

Follow Seth Arenstein: @skarenstein