The 1982 Johnson & Johnson Tylenol Crisis
For 40 years, many people in PR have considered the response of Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to the Tylenol poisonings in October 1982 to be the ‘grand-daddy of good crisis communication’. Although it may be more accurate to think of it as the ‘grand-daddy of corporate responsibility’, let us take a look at why it remains such a compelling case study.
At the time, Tylenol, a Paracetamol-based painkiller, was responsible for almost 20 per cent of J&J’s profits. Then on 29th September, 1982, the first of seven people died in the Chicago area after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol. Since the deaths resulted from capsules from different factories, the authorities concluded that the capsules had been stolen from stores, adulterated and deposited back on the shelves.
The Power Of A Strong Corporate Story During A Crisis
With no official crisis management plan in place to guide it, J&J chairman, James Burke, went back to its “credo” written in the 1940s by then company chairman, Robert Wood Johnson. This set out that the business had moral responsibilities to society beyond sales and profit to “consumers and medical professionals using its products, employees, the communities where its people work and live, and its stockholders”.
Story development is core to our media training and PR these days. But J&J had never previously communicated their corporate story externally. But it brought clear benefits as the company aligned its communications and behaviours.
The company was a victim in this product-tampering crisis and could have just denied any responsibility for the deaths. Instead its messaging focused on being transparent, compassionate and committed to solving the murders and protecting the public. Although it would cost the company millions of dollars, J&J took immediate responsibility for putting public safety above profit – and received the credit for doing so.
- The company’s first action was to take out newspaper advertisements alerting people not to consume any type of Tylenol product until the extent of the tampering could be determined;
- The company halted the production and advertising of Tylenol capsules, ordered a national withdrawal of the product and once it became clear that only capsules were affected, offered to exchange all Tylenol capsules already purchased by the public with solid tablets; and
- it provided the victims’ families with counseling and financial assistance.
The PR Response
Robert Andrews, J&J’s Assistant PR Director, recalled how it was a Chicago news reporter who first informed him about the link between the deaths and Tylenol: “We told him we knew nothing about it. In that first call we learned more from the reporter than he did from us.”
From that point on, company sought to consider the crisis from the ‘outside-in’ and communicate messages that reflected the interests and concerns of the audience. Neither the company nor its Chairman, Jim Burke, hid from the media. Burke went on 60 Minutes and The Donahue Show to communicate his key messages. By using television and newspapers to warn people about the problem, the company was treated fairly by the media for being open and honest.
All three then national broadcast news networks led with the Tylenol story on the first day of the crisis; over 100,000 separate news stories ran in U.S. newspapers throughout the crisis. In a pre-internet age, a post crisis study by J&J reported that over 90 percent of the American population had heard the story within the first week of the crisis.
J&J established a customer helpline and a ‘toll-free’ line for news organizations to call and receive pre-taped daily messages with updated statements about the crisis (such was the nature of pre-internet communications!). Several major press conferences were held at corporate headquarters. The company made sure that it thanked the media for its part in making the public aware of the problem and for the fair coverage that it received.
The Fightback Through Integrated Marketing & Communications
Given that there was nothing wrong with the manufactured product itself, the challenge was to rebuild confidence in Tylenol. Within six weeks, the company had designed and manufactured a triple-lock, tamper-resistant container. It held a 30-city video teleconference from New York introducing the new packaging, giving every reporter a sample. And through an integrated marketing and communications campaign, J&J:
- instigated a political lobbying campaign for legislation to make product-tampering a crime and require tamper-proof packaging for over-the-counter drugs;
- invited people to call a freephone number to request a free bottle in the new packaging;
- published 80 million newspaper coupons during November and December, offering half price Tylenol;
- had its sales reps visit doctors and pharmacists to explain face-to-face the new packaging arrangements and sent them 50 million capsules for free distribution on the basis that people would be reassured that Tylenol was safe if doctors were issuing it to their patients; and
- developed new random inspection procedures before the shipment of Tylenol to retailers.
Directly following the incident, Tylenol’s market share had dropped from 35% to 8%. By the following spring, it had rebounded to 30%.
A $100,000 reward, posted by Johnson & Johnson for the capture and conviction of the ‘Tylenol Killer’ has never been claimed.
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