The Anniversary of Crisis Management: What the Tylenol Crisis Taught The PR Industry

James E. Burke, the CEO who guided Johnson & Johnson through Tylenol scare

Last week marked the death of James E. Burke, the CEO of the Johnson & Johnson from 1976 to 1989. His tenure heading Johnson & Johnson  included a difficult time for the company – the Chicago Tylenol murders – and more importantly, an iconic benchmark in Crisis Management as we know it.

Before the Cadbury’s worm-infested candy bars, before the BP Oil fiasco, before all the crises that made PR history and created textbook-examples of what to do, (and not do) in a product crisis, there was Johnson & Johnson, which set, what The Economist has called “the gold standard of crisis management.”

If you work in PR, it’s possible you already know the plot: seven people died in Chicago, after taking Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide bought and consumed in various Chicago neighborhoods.

So, why was Johnson & Johnson praised for its treatment of the crisis?

The answer: Proactivity, transparency, and communication.

Instead of letting bad news trickle down to people in bits, J&J activated their crisis approach immediately, as soon as the first reports hit and informed the media, even though it was not the company, but a murderer contaminating bottles of Tylenol in shops across Chicago.

And in doing so, it activated another rule of crisis control – good news can replace bad news; in this case, the tamper proof packaging initiated by Tylenol that would prevent future contamination. Ingredients in the Tylenol crisis mix are the staples of any successful product crisis campaign – except that Tylenol nailed them, bang-on, without a discernible precedent to learn from. 

In 1982, it was unexpected for a company to recall its products –America was recovering from the worst periods in its economic history during this time, and a company spending over 100 million dollars (circa 1982) to pull products off the shelves was surprising.

“He spoke the truth and that was astonishingly liberating for everyone who heard it because we have all become so accustomed to public figures telling less than the truth or lying,” Richard Tedlow, “Denial,” a 2010 book about corporate leadership.

Burke stood in front the media, and publicly apologized to the media – not for the contaminated bottles which were not Tylenol’s fault, but its lack of safety measures and took responsibility for the mishap.

“In the early nineteen-eighties, American businesses discovered that they could manage crises, rather than merely 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.” James Surowiecki, “In Case of Emergency,” New Yorker – June, 2005

Johnson & Johnson also started a crisis cell for creating awareness, with a free hotline, and removed all previously scheduled advertising to instead buy dedicated TV spots to alert the public to not consume their product.

Instead of a shotgun-pellet approach, Tylenol choose to create custom messages for each communication channel;  individual messaging was tailor-made and delivered to the families of victims families, the media, company executives, stakeholders, doctors and pharmacists.

The result: the corporate image of a company that cares for its clients.

As part of its $300 million advertising and PR campaign to revive brand Tylenol after the 1982, it also put out a $100,000 reward for evidence leading to the conviction of the murderer(s)

“That taught corporations a lesson about candor,” John F. Welch Jr., the former chairman and chief executive of General Electric. “It was a huge legacy to leave: When you have a problem, deal with it openly, up front.”

CEO James Burke apologized and took responsibility for the adulteration of Tylenol Capsules, setting the standard for

Written by Kunal Anand for Image Management

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