Just when I thought I found a pharmaceutical company — i.e., Johnson & Johnson — we could trust to do the right thing (see “DTC Straight Talk,” where I praise J&J for taking the lead in a new approach to DTC advertising), I learn that perhaps even that company may have hidden important clinical research data about Propulsid, a popular medicine for heartburn, which has since been pulled from the market.

According to an article in today’s New York Times, “Lucrative Drug, Danger Signals and the F.D.A.”:

Dozens had died and more than 100 patients had suffered serious heart problems by March 1998 after taking Propulsid, a popular medicine for heartburn. Infants, given the drug to treat acid reflux, seemed particularly at risk. Federal officials told Propulsid’s manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, that the drug might have to be banned for children, or even withdrawn altogether. Instead, the government and the company negotiated new warnings for the drug’s label – though not nearly as tough as regulators had wanted.

The story offers a striking parallel with how Merck reacted to bad news about Vioxx (see, for example,”Who Should Pay for Merck’s Obstructionism?“).

I am having trouble reading through to the end of the Times story because I know it’s all bad news and I just don’t have the heart for it. But mainly I couldn’t get past this sentence in the article:

The company declined repeated requests to make executives available to be interviewed for this article. In written responses, Johnson & Johnson defended the safety of Propulsid and said that the marketing of the pill was appropriate.

THIS IS WHAT REALLY BOTHERS ME and what I want to talk about.

Drugs are sometimes dangerous and “shit happens” as they say. But why drug companies continue to circle the wagons when shit happens is a bit of a mystery to me (just a bit), especially a company like J&J who led the way regarding transparency and crisis management way back when several people died from cyanide-laced Tylenol. Here’s what a commentator in this week’s New Yorker Magazine had to say about that:

In the early nineteen-eighties, American businesses discovered that they could manage crises, rather than just stumble through them. The gold standard was Johnson & Johnson, whose deft maneuvering, after seven people died from ingesting cyanide-laced Extra-Strength Tylenol, helped create a new and lucrative subset of public relations known as crisis management, which was poised, as Time put it in 1986, to become “the new corporate discipline.”

Wha’ Happened?

The first thing that comes to mind is lawyers happened — both inside companies and litigators outside. Which came first is of little consequence. I imagine today that the lawyers inside J&J have put the muzzle on everyone, including the PR people and execs who might otherwise wish to employ the “gold standard” of crisis management.

I’ve often heard executives of pharma companies say that the industry should have better PR, by which they mean more strident PR touting how great the industry is, how they save lives, yadda, yadda, yadda. Show some backbone, they say.

That’s not crisis management and that does not show backbone.

J&J should have their people out there talking to the NY Times, being transparent and managing this crisis not only with words and slogans like “Where patients come first” (see “Patients Come First?“), but with actions!

Obviously, it’s a bit late for J&J and they probably can’t say it isn’t so (the Times allegedly has previously sealed court papers with proof).

What Are They Thinking?
Maybe J&J thinks the crisis that happened years ago, they already pulled the drug from the market, and this is just a rehash of old news that will blow over. So, best to stonewall and stick with the all-too-common “defense”: “Our marketing was appropriate.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that pharma companies recognize that they are in a crisis, but they do not realize that the crisis needs to be managed through transparency and by words backed by action — that is, by employing the “gold standard.”