Last week, I sent an e-mail to Hamilton Nolan at PR Week. He writes the “PR Play of the Week” – a kind of idiocy barometer – and suggested he write on the J&J PR gaffe with the Red Cross. Well, he did one better…he wrote about it on the front page in J&J, Red Cross debate logo-use lawsuit online.
The crux of the issue is that the Red Cross is the older of the organizations and has been using the logo for a longer period of time. For it’s part, J&J claims that in 1895, the founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, turned over exclusive right’s to the red cross on all health-related products. Since the American Red Cross has been selling its own products for the last two years, the billion dollar conglomerate of Johnson & Johnson has felt that the alleged agreement between itself and Clara Barton of the American Red Cross has been breached. For me, it will be interesting to see if J&J can produce a copy of said written agreement and whether the courts decide if that agreement is still valid. On the Kilmer House website, which appears to be another J&J blog, “Finally, a decade after the agreement, President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation protecting the American Red Cross’s use of the red cross mark, but at the same time reserving the rights of Johnson & Johnson to use it too.” This gives BOTH groups the right to the logo, not just J&J alone.
But what gets me is something posted on the J&J blog, JNJBTW. To explain the PR gaffe, the J&J bloggers have said, “Our small media relations group was reduced even further by summer vacations...” I would have expected J&J to recall the comms team from their vacations (and their staff blogger) – remember, J&J initiated this, so they could have controlled the timing. This shows a serious disconnect between J&J’s legal team and the communications team. Whether or not J&J is right legally, they should have been prepared for the communications and publicity onslaught.
When most companies face a PR crisis like this, they are fully prepared with documents explaining its position. In addition to their short press release, I would have expected J&J to have been prepared with extracts of the original contract with Clara Barton/American Red Cross, a full chronology, background documents listing each product of the American Red Cross which violates the agreement, a chronology detailing each step that J&J took to try and work this out with the Red Cross before filing the lawsuit, how much money J&J has donated to the Red Cross over the years, etc.
Is this a PR disaster? Absolutely. Is this big bad pharma ganging up on the little non-profit? Sure looks that way. And J&J's position could have been communicated. If this isn't what it appears to be (the big bad pharma ganging up on the good non-profit), J&J needs to tell us why. We're waiting...