The Perfect Crisis Response?

For many in PR, the 'grand-daddy' of good crisis communication remains the Autumn 1982 response of Johnson & Johnson to the deaths of seven people in Chicago who had taken its market leading, over-the-counter painkiller, Tylenol. So what actually happened?

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As so often, the media got wind of the crisis before the company.

Robert Andrews, J&J’s Assistant PR Director recalled how "We got a call from a Chicago news reporter. He told us that the medical examiner there had just given a press conference - people were dying from poisoned Tylenol. He wanted our comment. As it was the first knowledge we had here in this department, we told him we knew nothing about it. In that first call we learned more from the reporter than he did from us."

All news is about people.

The three broadcast news networks lead with the Tylenol story on the first day of the crisis. and CBS’ opening line was "When 12 year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois, awoke at dawn with cold symptoms; her parents gave her one Extra-Strength Tylenol and sent her back to bed. Little did they know, they would wake up at 7:00 a.m. to find their daughter dying on the bathroom floor". The print media weighed in with equally damaging headlines: Time Magazine: Poison Madness in the Midwest; The Washington Post: Tylenol: Killer or Cure’.

Media reporting would continue to focus on Tylenol killing people until more information about what caused the deaths was made available. Throughout the crisis over 100,000 separate news stories ran in U.S. newspapers, and hundreds of hours of national and local television coverage. A post crisis study by J&J said that over 90 percent of the American population had heard the story within the first week of the crisis.

The company did not have a crisis management plan (unthinkable today).

So the company’s Chairman, James Burke, went back to the company’s founding credo. This saw the business as having a moral responsibility to society beyond sales and profit. He formed a seven-member strategy team with two tasks: how do we protect people and how do we save this product and our reputation?

The company’s first action was to immediately alert consumers via advertising and the media not to consume any type of Tylenol product. The company halted the production and advertising of Tylenol capsules and ordered a national withdrawal of the product.

When the authorities concluded that tampering had occurred once the Tylenol had reached Chicago, with the capsules stolen from stores, adulterated and deposited back on the shelves, it was clear that the company was the victim of a poisoner. Once it became clear that only capsules were affected, J&J offered to exchange all Tylenol capsules already purchased by the public with solid tablets.

Burke was widely admired for his leadership in the decision to pull Tylenol capsules off the shelves. While there may not have been a single drop of cyanide in any of the capsules and it cost the company millions of dollars, it received the credit for putting public safety above profit.

Burke was open with the media (in contrast to its failure to establish a relationship with it before the event) and in a more deferential age, they therefore treated him fairly.

Burke went on 60 Minutes and The Donahue Show to articulate his key messages. The company was candid, compassionate and contrite.

Negative public sentiment against the company evaporated as the media showed it taking positive and selfless actions; within six weeks, the company had designed the first, triple-lock tamper-resistant container. It later launched a huge marketing campaign to win back customer trust and by the following Spring, had recovered most of its market share.

A $100,000 reward, posted by J&J for the conviction of the ‘Tylenol Killer’ has never been claimed.

Three key learning points emerge. Firstly, that your corporate story – not your marketing slogan or business tagline - should hold true in the good times and the bad. Although J&J had not communicated this previously, its ‘credo’ was perfect for aligning communication and business behavior.

Secondly, always consider crisis from the outside in and communicate messages which reflect the interests and concerns of your audience. In priority order, these are: People, Environment, Property and only then Finance. J&J did this and was the cornerstone of their recovery.

Thirdly, follow the CAP Process – express Concern, take Action, offer Perspective. Act fast and be transparent with the media. Especially in today’s social media dominated world.

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