by Steve Adubato, PhD

“Very honestly, it’s understandable that people are upset…I’d be untruthful if I said I wasn’t upset.”

These are the comments made by Johnson & Johnson CEO William Weldon in The Star-Ledger this past Thursday, just one day before Johnson & Johnson’s annual shareholder meeting, which was sure to be a rocky one.

It’s no secret that Johnson & Johnson’s brand, one of the most successful and enduring in corporate America, has taken some huge hits in the past couple of years given the number of recalls of its top products including Benadryl, Motrin, Tylenol and Sudafed.

It’s interesting that almost 30 years ago, Johnson & Johnson’s then CEO James Burke set the gold standard for crisis communication surrounding his handling of the Extra Strength Tylenol / cyanide lacing scare.

But this most recent Johnson & Johnson crisis communication case study is a very different one—it is self-induced. The corporate giant is not a victim, but rather has had to communicate in a fashion that protects its reputation and its brand equity at a time when many shareholders are not just angry, but want very direct answers. In this way, William Weldon is setting if not the gold standard, at least one that most CEOs and other corporate leaders can hope to attain.

In her April 28 story entitled ‘CEO of Johnson & Johnson to face angry shareholders today after wave of recalls’, The Star-Ledger reporter Susan Todd writes; “In an era of lingering corporate hubris, Weldon’s remarks were an extraordinary display of humility from the top executive of the world’s second largest drug maker.”

Weldon told The Star-Ledger; “I am accepting accountability for what happened and I’m giving clarification about what we’re doing…We’re making sure we do everything we can to make sure (this) never happens again.” Finally, Weldon said; “I want to bring closure to everything and to let people know what we’re doing to restore faith and confidence in Johnson & Johnson.”

When it comes to candid corporate communication, there seems to be fewer and fewer cases that you can point to where leaders do the right thing, even if we feel it has taken them too long to get there. In fact, some, like former BP CEO Tony Hayward, actually never get there. They refuse to acknowledge their responsibility and/or accountability. They point fingers, they blame others, they not only scapegoat, but engage in cover ups. Most often, they hide behind their lawyers or their PR professionals who speak for them.

While William Weldon is not a hero, it is refreshing to simply hear a leader communicate in a direct and clear fashion. Now, of course saying that the company is doing everything it can to avoid the kind of production and manufacturing mistakes that caused this highly embarrassing and brand-tarnishing recall is one thing. However, the next step is to get specific and concrete.

When it comes to crisis communication, one of the biggest pieces missing is moving from the abstract, pie in the sky messaging, to more granular, concrete action steps. Simply put, don’t just tell us you are doing everything to fix a situation or avoid a repeat of a bad outcome. Tell us exactly what you are going to do and then ultimately engage in an open, interactive dialogue that allows for hard and potentially embarrassing questions to be asked in public.

As I said, William Weldon didn’t create a gold standard for his crisis communication, but it would be great to see more leaders in business adopt his approach of taking responsibility and being accountable, particularly on the eve of an annual shareholders meeting where the stakes are so high and stakeholders are so invested.