Oral Histories

Larry Foster

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior

Larry Foster Biography

Larry Foster assisted in forming Johnson & Johnson’s first Public Relations Department in 1957, when the company had annual sales of $250 million. Upon his retirement 33 years later, the company had grown 40 times larger and had sales of $10 billion. During his tenure with Johnson & Johnson, he was Director of Public Relations and Assistant to the Chairman before becoming Corporate Vice President of Public Relations and an officer of the company in 1973.

In 1982, Foster led Johnson & Johnson’s highly acclaimed response to the Tylenol poisoning tragedy. Following Foster’s lead, Johnson & Johnson was completely open with the public, put its interest first and withdrew 32 million packages of Tylenol from the market. Because of Foster’s successful and ethical strategies, PR Week magazine named him one of the ten most influential public relations executives of the 20th Century.

An author of several books, Foster is the recipient of three of the highest awards in the public relations field, the 1989 Gold Anvil Award, the 1998 Atlas, and the Hall of Fame Award in 1994.

Transcript

Interviewer: Give us an example of how a relationship might have been tested that you might have learned from.

Foster: Just let me preface that by saying that Johnson & Johnson has a corporate credo that was written by Robert Wood Johnson in the early 1940s. It is very similar markedly similar to the Page message and while he wrote that in the early 1940’s, he outlined it for the first time in 1935 just at the time that Arthur Page was at AT & T. And Johnson wrote frequently in major magazines and so did Arthur Page and the principles of the Page Principles and of the Johnson & Johnson credo which is a one page document that calls for four responsibilities – to the customer first, to the employees second, to the communities where we work and live third, and fourthly to the stockholders.  So, they are markedly similar. And as an example which you asked for, I remember one time we had to close down a major facility in the South. And it went through all the routines of regular corporate evaluation where we brought the legal people in, we brought the human resources people in, and we put together a package that everyone in the company in the senior management thought was fair and adequate. I disagreed, because this was a textile mill in the South and it’s really a textile town that we had created. It had an older population of employees and it was in a remote area that there weren’t any other jobs. I thought to close this down, even with a good compensation package, was totally inconsistent with the Johnson & Johnson credo, and I vehemently argued that. And I created some doubts in their minds as to whether they were doing the right thing including the chairman.  And we left the meeting with the situation undecided because no one knew what to do. Fortunately, one of the executive committee members from the meeting was deeply involved in manufacturing. He knew as you probably know, Johnson & Johnson was a highly decentralized company.  At that time we had about 100 companies around the world, individually managed, cumulatively forming the substance of what Johnson & Johnson is at the corporate level. And he knew that one of the affiliates in the South in Texas I believe it was, Southwest was going to add to a facility down there and it just so happened after a lot of negotiations a lot of working out details. That other affiliate company was able to go in and take over the facility of the textile business in that town and as a result those people did not lose their jobs and the town was saved.  If I had capitulated and not been stubborn and I think I raised the subject but when I did I wasn’t alone. Others did see, well you know he’s got a point.

Interviewer: Prove it with Action. Is it as simple as action speaks louder than words?

Foster: Well if the company isn’t taking actions on a problem, then they are derelict in their duties. I don’t think the question of action takes long to prove. I think every given situation, major situation, major crisis, it’s a fluid situation and you constantly are required to make decisions which are implemented into action, so I think a company that is reluctant or hesitant about making, demonstrating action is derelict. And I think the immediate and public opinion . My interpretation, my knowledge of the media and how the press would respond to a give situation has a great deal to do with how the public responds. The public learns from the media and then they make decisions and I think that you know what you feel you want the public to decide, hopefully in your favor, and therefore the media is the conduit by which your judgments become your decisions. But that goes hand in hand with action.  I hardly think the public would tolerate inaction on anything that is important. In fact, that’s the greatest mistake I think that most people in handling crises make the single greatest mistake, they lose track of the importance of time. They wait two days to have meetings before they say they are sorry about what happened and they are going to correct it. I mean you don’t need two days. You may need ten seconds. You don’t need two days. And the timing is so critically important. And people don’t and I think some of the crisis management people who come up with these great documents on How to handle crisis. Many of which sometimes stay in the file gathering dust in the middle of a major, major crisis, but they forget that you have to, you have to demonstrate immediately what your intentions are and why.  And that’s not hard to do. You may not be able to get into detail, understand, but to give the company’s fundamental position on any major situation doesn’t’ take a lot of meetings.