Lessons still resonate 25 years later

Today's youngest PR pros hadn't even been born in 1982 when seven Americans were killed by cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules.

Today's youngest PR pros hadn't even been born in 1982 when seven Americans were killed by cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. Yet, a quarter-century later, Johnson & John-son's response to the poisonings and to a seemingly insurmountable threat to the brand remains a ubiquitous PR case study, the success story that set a new standard in crisis management.

The communications environment has changed dramatically since the Tylenol poisonings thanks to the Internet, social media, class-action lawsuits, globalization, changing public expectations about government over- sight and corporate responsibility, and just plain information overload. The beauty of the Tylenol case is that the company's strategic approach remains every bit as elegant as it was in the days before "text" was a verb.

Principle 1: Put public safety and well-being first. J&J's responsibility to its customers is the first element of its corporate credo and there is no better guiding beacon for any institution.

Regardless of whether a situation actually puts lives on the line, an organization will find that "doing the right thing" - and each of us knows what that is when we see it - will ultimately lead it toward protecting its reputation and its own long-term interests.

Principle 2: Over-communicate.

If it feels like you're reaching out too often and to too many people, it's probably about right.

Arguably, the window of opportunity to influence public perception and behavior is even smaller today than it was in the early '80s. And the media cacophony is much louder today. It takes commitment, ingenuity, and a compelling message to cut through the clutter.

Principle 3: Exceed expectations. J&J clearly understood what its most important audiences - the drivers of its reputation - expected from the company.

The lesson is not "do a national recall" or "put your CEO on television," but rather, take the action that is needed to protect or repair the confidence of your stakeholders. Don't expect to get credit for what a reasonable person would see as the least that you can do; be prepared to go above and beyond. The setting of the bar is unique to each organization - and if you don't know where it is before crisis strikes, you'd better find out.

If a central test of crisis response is the speed and fullness of recovery, the Tylenol case has forever skewed the grading curve: The product, which had been the best-selling over-the-counter pain reliever, regained much of its market share by spring 1987, totally recovered within a year, and remains number one today.

The takeaway for today's practitioners: By all means, harness the latest and most effective communications tools, technologies, and channels. But take care never to confuse tools with results or message with integrity. Successful crisis management is still about sustaining and rebuilding relationships through the toughest of times. That means knowing who matters and convincing them that they are in trustworthy hands.

Karen Doyne heads the crisis practice for Burson-Marsteller US and is an MD in the agency's Washington, DC, office.

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