NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Recall-weary parents are taking to Facebook and Twitter to complain that Johnson & Johnson -- a company that three decades ago was considered the gold standard of crisis communications -- isn't reacting sufficiently to their concerns, with some vowing to make the switch to generic brands.
On April 30, J&J's McNeil Consumer Healthcare division said it was voluntarily recalling Children's Tylenol, Motrin, Zyrtec and Benadryl because they didn't meet internal-testing requirements or could contain "tiny particles."
Third recall since August
It represents the third recall for J&J's McNeil Consumer Healthcare unit since last August and comes just as the company was trying to recover from the devastating effects of a massive recall of many of the same brands in January. The prior recalls had to do with products from a Puerto Rican plant, while the current one stems from products shipped from a Pennsylvania plant and deals with different quality-control issues.
The FDA in a harsh appraisal of J&J's response to the earlier issues said: "Neither upper management at J&J nor at McNeil Consumer Healthcare assured timely investigation and resolution of the issues." But J&J Chairman-CEO William Weldon in a conference call at the time said, "We're very conscious of the bar we set for ourselves and that consumers expect more from us than from others because of our history and reputation. ... I want to assure you we take these matters very seriously and nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of the people who use our products."
But with the latest recall, many consumers are saying they feeling anything but comforted by the health-care giant.
On JnJBTW, a blog managed by one of Johnson & Johnson's senior media-relations executives, Marc Monseau, for example, a parent named Evan D. Owen wrote: "I would highly recommend that J&J and McNeil Consumer Healthcare take a serious look at how you've handled this situation thus far. To be specific: Your recall announcement at 9:15 p.m. on a Friday night was deliberate to minimize media exposure. You know very well that consumers watch very little news during the weekend compared to a weekday."
Mr. Owen is also the creator of a Facebook group that "represents angry and frustrated parents" who have attempted to call a toll-free number to obtain safety information and refunds The group appears to have been created this weekend and now numbers just over 500 members.
(Ad Age called that number twice. The first time, we received a recorded message that verbatim read the press release to us. The second time, we received a recording that said due to high call volume, nobody could take the call and were redirected to a website that contains pertinent information, including a frequently asked questions section).
"I bought the Target -brand ibuprofen only because on the box it says 'This product is not manufactured or distributed by Johnson & Johnson, owner of the registered trademark Children's Motrin,'" wrote Michelle Coan Fonk on the Facebook page.
Others took to Twitter to voice their dissatisfaction: Tweeted @DjSnipSnip: "Sick of u J&J. Does Costco make children's ibuprofen?" and @MissSueBurbia: "Just spent a fortune on generic children's drugs. McNeil and J&J products officially banned from our house. Enough already." A McNeil spokeswoman said the company has worked to quickly get information about the affected products to consumers and set up a website to help get the word out, mcneilproductrecall.com, but she declined to comment on how the recall, particularly coming close on the heels of others, would affect the brand or J&J's image.
"We're trying to ensure we can help consumers and provide them with as much information as possible about the products," she said. "I can only speak about the specific recall and what we're doing around that."
Then and now
"The difference here is that the scare back in the early 1980s was something that was done to them. Now, this situation is tied to one of their facilities, and they are responsible for it," said Rich Tauberman, exec VP at Interpublic Group of Cos.' MWW. "On top of this most recent crisis they have also had a couple of incidents and recalls over the last couple of months, and the combination of all that is what's upsetting to people. And they have made a few missteps in their response, whether it be it their customer call line or getting consumers the information they want. They have dropped the ball a bit.
"Consumers and the media look at crisis situations through a different specter when it's something you don't have control over vs. something you're responsible for." Still, the long-trusted brand has a ton of equity with U.S. consumers, and despite its recent woes, ranks high in terms of trustworthiness.
J&J's sterling rep
According to a survey by the Reputation Institute conducted in January and February and released late last month, J&J ranks as the most reputable U.S. company. That's a metric that it defines as allowing the brand to be 350% more likely to purchase products, and be 300% more likely to voice verbal support or give benefit of the doubt.
The survey said J&J ranked led the top 10 U.S. brands, ahead of Kraft Foods, Kellogg, Walt Disney Co., PepsiCo, Sara Lee, Google Microsoft, UPS and Dean Foods.
And the recall doesn't seem to be having an impact on share price -- it was up more than a dollar today.
J&J has benefit of the doubt of public
Peter Pitts, former FDA associate commissioner and global head of regulatory and public policy for Omnicom Group's Porter Novelli, said J&J has the benefit of the doubt from the public and American moms.
As long as the company is "honest and transparent on TV and in print and social media" it will come out ahead of the game, Mr. Pitts said, noting the company should focus its communications efforts on social media. "As other companies have learned moms are very keen to play on social media, especially when it comes to issues that impact their children and their health."
"From a complaint standpoint they need to understand what caused the problem and address it, which will end up putting them ahead of the curve relative to quality. And from a PR standpoint they need to be honest about happened and let the public know it will do everything that is required to make the products as safe as can be."
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Contributing: Michael Bush