Put public's interest first in a crisis

A quarter-century has passed since the "Tylenol scare", an incident that saw seven people from the Chicago area die after ingesting Tylenol capsules that had been intentionally tainted with cyanide.

A quarter-century has passed since the "Tylenol scare", an incident that saw seven people from the Chicago area die after ingesting Tylenol capsules that had been intentionally tainted with cyanide.

Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson's response set a new standard in corporate responsibility and crisis management, one that companies can still learn from today.

Some estimates suggest that in 1982, Tylenol's market share plunged from over 30% to about 8%. A year later, it rebounded to gain a leading market position. Today it remains one of the most popular analgesics on store shelves and a trusted brand. According to Interbrand's annual global brand value survey, Johnson & Johnson is one of the world's most valuable brands, ranking in the top 100 globally.

By recalling more than 30 million bottles of product, halting all brand advertising, reaching out to hospitals and medical practitioners to warn them of potential danger and actively encouraging consumers not to use the product, Johnson & Johnson positioned itself for a more effective re-entry into the marketplace. Tylenol was re-introduced with new “tamper proof” packaging, a new gel cap product format, and deep price discounts.

Driven by a simple principle – always put the public's interest first – Johnson & Johnson's actions, which seem like the obvious course of action today, were revolutionary for their time.

By pulling its product from store shelves and taking a financial hit (estimates put the cost of the recall effort alone at more than $100 million) Johnson & Johnson sent consumers a message: your safety is our priority. That paid dividends when the time came to re-introduce its product to market, because consumers had been conditioned to believe that Johnson & Johnson would only do this if it was safe for the consumer.

Instinctively, all businesses understand the mantra “the consumer comes first.” In practice, however, when a crisis strikes, businesses often behave differently. Some choose instead to hunker down, deny, or wait out the storm. But in an age of instantaneous 24/7 media, blogs, chat rooms, and citizen journalism, the old public relations adage applies more than ever before: if you don't tell your story someone else will tell it for you.

Some companies have learned the hard way that a mismanaged crisis can do lasting, even irreparable, damage to a brand. Take Arthur Andersen, for example, in the US, or Menu Food's response to the pet food scare last spring. Therein lays the value of the Tylenol example: it confirms that the first step to effectively managing a crisis is to ask “What is the public thinking? What will their reaction to this news be?” Honest answers will help to guide management as it weighs the inevitable legal, regulatory, and operational considerations, to say nothing of financial concerns that must also be reviewed before a course of action can be determined.

In an ideal world organizations would know exactly how to respond to any given crisis on any given day. That isn't realistic. But if its decision-making is rooted in sound, agreed upon principles that emphasize putting the public's interests first, not only will making critical decisions under the pressure of a crisis happen more efficiently, the company's interests will ultimately be served. The health of the Tylenol brand, 25 years later, is testament to that.

Jason MacDonald is a VP of corporate communications and public affairs at Veritas Communications and a principal with TAKE Command, Veritas' crisis communications practice. He can be reached at info@takecommand.ca.

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