Persuasive communication

The Man Who Taught Us How to Rescue Trust

Lawrence Foster died on October 17th. You may not recognize the name; I certainly didn’t, but I knew who he was and what he did. Foster ran the PR department at Johnson & Johnson and crafted the strategy that set the gold standard for corporate communications in a crisis.

As a quick reminder, in 1982 seven people died in the Chicago area after taking Extra Strength Tylenol. It wasn’t a bad batch—someone was deliberately injecting cyanide into capsules and putting the packages back onto store shelves. (For my younger readers: we didn’t have tamper-resistant packages back then; they were invented in response to this incident.) Although it wasn’t the company’s fault, the publicity threatened to kill the brand.

As the New York Times obituary reports, Foster advised the J&J Chairman to: “…put consumer safety first, to respond to the media with alacrity and to be entirely honest.”

Let’s break it down:

Put consumer safety first: This is the most important part of the strategy. Foster did not see this as just a communications problem. The bigger picture was that seven people had died, and no one knew how many others would be at risk. The first priority was not “spinning” the news, it was saving lives. J&J showed its commitment by spending over $100 million to immediately pull over 30 million bottles of Tylenol off the shelves. The public saw them as sincerely caring about doing the right thing.

Respond to the media with alacrity: Foster knew you can run but you can’t hide, so he urged the company to run to the problem. When the news is bad, it’s a natural reaction to want to circle the wagons and try to avoid the hard questions. Generations of politicians and CEOs have learned that this is precisely the wrong approach. The more you try to hide, the harder the media will dig for the story, and when they find it, they will dictate the terms of the story.

Be entirely honest: The risk in responding quickly is that you don’t have all the facts, so even well-intentioned statements may look like prevarications when the complete picture emerges. Foster’s approach is worth quoting verbatim:

“This is the principle we’re going to follow. We’re going to tell them what we know, and we’re not going to tell them what we don’t know. We’ll tell them we don’t know, and we’ll get back to them when we do know.”

Any company, especially one that earns a living selling stuff that people put in their mouths, lives and dies on trust. When trust dies, no amount of corporate spin or advertising dollars can resurrect it. So, when trust is threatened, the only way to preserve it is to show you care, have the courage to face the problem, and be completely transparent.

Do you think we could use some of that in Washington today?

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December 10, 2013

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